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Sermon for Sunday 28 August 2016

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.”



In August of 1990 I deployed into the Middle East as part of Desert Storm. Now without going into all the boring details as to why, Seymour Johnson AFB was sent to a bare base in Oman. The only thing at Thumrait, was some very basic facilities and a runway. We had to bring everything from all our service and repair equipment to the tents we slept in, showered in and even the dining tents to eat in. For the first 45 days we slept in the un-air conditioned metal buildings previously used to store forward deployed equipment and ate nothing but MREs or Meals Ready to Eat. Then on Christmas day, we moved the entire base forward into Saudi Arabia where we did, at least, have better food.
Once we moved forward to Al Kharj, there was one additional improvement, a radio station. It was part of the Armed Forces Radio Network and as such every 2 to 3 hours they would change the format. They would go from Country to Pop, then from Pop to Rock, then from Rock to Jazz and so on. However, one thing remained constant. Every hour began with Lee Greenwoods song, I’m Proud to be an American and the hour would end with Bette Meddler’s hit, Wind Beneath My Wings. I shared this with you really to focus on Lee Greenwood’s hit.
As members deployed from the 4th Fighter Wing, we had a lot to be proud of. Not only were we the only F-15E Fighter Wing in the theater of operations, but we were the first to deploy a new LASER Target Designation system which would allow our pilots to drop precision guided weapons 24/7. And if that wasn’t enough to make one proud, we were doing all this in some of the most austere conditions imaginable. Now for those who remember, because of the hard work and dedication of the US military, the Desert Storm bombing campaign started on January 16th and 44 day later it was over. We gained air superiority over Iraq and defeated the Republican Guard and in essence won the war in a month and a half. We indeed had every reason to be proud to be in the Air Force and proud to be an American. And as you know pride can be both good and bad.
Good pride is that feeling you get when someone you care about succeeds. We can be proud of our kids, grandkids or another family member. We can be proud of our accomplishments as a church or even as a community. However, pride can be a bad thing when it causes us to become arrogant and look at someone else as being inferior to ourselves. This negative pride can be evidenced by sarcasm, degrading remarks, smugness or putting someone else down.
There’s a book titled The Second Book of Insults and many of the entries in the book came from England. Like the story of George Bernard Shaw, who was invited to a woman’s house for tea. She was one of those people who liked to “collect” celebrities so that she, herself, might be considered a celebrity. She sent Shaw her card, which read, “Lady So-and-So will be at home Thursday from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m.” Shaw wrote a note on the card and sent it back, and said, “Mr. George Bernard Shaw likewise.” Ouch! Winston Churchill was another who was equally adept at the put-down.
There’s a famous exchange between Winston Churchill and Lady Astor. Lady Astor didn’t like Churchill, so one day she said to him, “If I were your wife, I’d put poison in your tea.” Churchill said, “If I were your husband, I’d drink it.” Both Churchill and Shaw are considered masters of the put-down, so when you have an anecdote in which they battle each other, it’s a collector’s item.
Bernard Shaw sent two tickets to his latest play, opening in London, to Churchill with this note, “Here are two tickets for the opening night of my new play, one for you and one for a friend, if you have one.” Churchill sent them back with this note, “I cannot attend opening night. Send me two tickets for the next night, if there is one.” Pride, it seems, is the root cause of hierarchical institutions, people seeking status, or people trying to achieve a position of power or influence over someone else. It’s sad but true, that because of the sin of pride, every group arranges itself according to status. People seem to constantly be asking, “Where do I fit in?” Or, “Can I make a contribution?” And, “will it not be received?” “Can I be myself, or will I be put down?”
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s American classic, The Great Gatsby, revealed that status seeking is a part of American society. America saw itself as being a classless society, proud that it wasn’t like Europe and its stratified societies. Fitzgerald, in his powerful novel, revealed that America has created its own system of class. However, here in America, status isn’t gained by property or by family, but by money. It’s now money that separates us in America. So Jay Gatsby, looking across the water at the green light on the dock of the rich, was shut out of that society because he was poor. He wanted so much to be a part of their elegant parties. He wanted that more than anything else in the world.
In every institution there’s some formal or informal structure, some hierarchy with titles and salaries, privileges: the corner office, the parking place. Ted Leitner reported from Atlanta that when the Padres were there playing the Braves at Turner Stadium, owned of course by Ted Turner, there’s a private parking place reserved for Ted Turner, with a sign saying, “Don’t even think about it…” Now that’s status. That’s what wealth can bring to you, that kind of power. It’s sad, but even some churches are ranked according to status. It’s everywhere. It’s pervasive. It’s ubiquitous. We’re status consciousness. Every institution, any grouping of people, will manifest it, including the Church. It’s everywhere. And Jesus condemned it.
Consider again our gospel reading for this morning. Jesus is the guest at a fancy dinner. His host is a prominent Pharisee. It’s the kind of supper that would have been covered by all the local papers. Most likely, this dinner would also have included other local and state politicians and celebrities. The host was seen as an important man in that community since Luke says the man was a ruler. This means he was a leader that the people looked up to. People paid attention to him. He moved in the right circles.
This local leader invited some friends to dinner to meet this newest Rabbi in Israel, the man from Nazareth, who had gained such notoriety as a preacher and as a healer. There were even stories about miracles. So this too made Jesus a celebrity. Thousands of people came out to hear Him. Everyone at that event that day had heard of Him to be sure. It was a Sabbath meal so it had to have been a nice affair.
Most likely it was held at the Pharisee’s house. It might have even been a catered event. It was at a house in the right part of town with lush gardens and plenty of creature comforts. However, there was a problem. There must have been some animosity between Jesus and the local religious leaders because Luke tells us that they were watching Him closely. And what happened at the dinner I’m sure caused the host to regret his decision to invite Jesus.
First Jesus encounters a man with severe swelling in his body. The Bible says he had dropsy. As I pointed out earlier, it’s the Sabbath and Jesus heals the man anyway. But before He does, He puts the religious leaders on the spot. In essence Jesus asks if doing good is justified on the Sabbath despite the fact that the law prohibited any “work” on the Sabbath. You see they too were products of their pride. They prided themselves on how well they followed the law. At least until it affected them. But Jesus didn’t stop there. Jesus ceases the opportunity to teach a lesson to the social status minded crowd. It’s the same lesson that Solomon taught in our Proverbs reading. (25:6-7)
Jesus looking around the gathering and continues, “I noticed the way that you maneuvered for seats at this table. You can get away with that here, but I tell you, when you’re invited to a marriage feast, don’t sit down at the place of honor, lest a more distinguished person arrive, and the host has to come over to you and, in front of everyone, say to you, `Give your place to this person.’ Instead, when you are invited, go to the lowest place, so that when the host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move on up higher’; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled and everyone who humbles himself will be exalted.” It’s a lesson in being humble. However, there’s something I bet you never considered about this passage.
Did you ever read this as a judgment parable? Well it is and here’s the clue. “When you are invited to a marriage feast.” The marriage feast is one of the metaphors for the Kingdom of God. Jesus is pictured as the bridegroom. When the Kingdom comes, it will be like a great banquet, a marriage feast. Consider other parables using the same metaphor.
There’s the one about the bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom to come, who’s been delayed. (Matt. 25:1-13) And there are other parables about banquets and feasts. And the parables Jesus told about banquets are concerned about who’s invited, who comes and who doesn’t come, who gets in and who doesn’t get in. This too is one of those parables.
Its purpose is to give us a glimpse of the end time. It says, don’t count on what you count on now, counting then. Don’t count on what you think is important now, being important then. All this jockeying for position. All this self-aggrandizement. All this wanting to be in the right place. All this wanting to be number one, being on top. None of that is going to matter. What counts in God’s kingdom is humility.
At that banquet, at that time, the appropriate place for all of us is at the foot of the table. At that banquet, in that Kingdom, the appropriate stance for everybody is humility. This is why I say that this is a judgment parable. Nobody knows what’s going to happen at the banquet. I get impatient with people who seem to know who’s going to heaven and who’s going to hell, as if they were privy to the guest list, as if they knew beforehand who has been invited, as if they knew the seating arrangements, where you’re going to sit, who’s going to be at the head table next to Jesus. There are some people who think they know all that. I notice that the people they say are going to be in heaven are the people who agree with them. And the people they say are going to hell are the people who don’t agree with them. Sadly, these people often pass as Bible believing Christians. I wonder if they’ve even read the Bible.
If you’ll take the time to study the Bible, it’s as clear as it can be. Nobody knows. The only thing we can be certain of, is that there are going to be surprises. This story from Luke gives us the best clue as to how we can get there, who’s going to be there. As we read in our gospel lesson for last week, it’s those who expend the effort to go through the narrow door. Let’s face it, setting aside pride and humbling oneself is no easy task! It’s right there in verse 11, the humble will make it. “For everyone who humbles himself will be exalted and everyone who exalts himself will be humbled. That’s it. Humility is essential. We also know from other teachings, like the Last Judgment scene in the Gospel of Matthew, that humbling yourself means thinking about other people. Serving them, that’s what it means.
Recall if you will the Judgment scene in Matthew, sometimes called “The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats,” the most significant part of that story is the surprises. (Matt. 25:31-46) At the end of the story everyone is surprised. Those that get rejected are surprised. They thought they were shoo-ins. They thought they had “reservations” at that banquet. What’s even more significant, is those who do get in are even more surprised. It’s about humility. They weren’t even thinking about getting into heaven. All they were thinking about was helping people in need.
So the clues are right there in the Bible, and they’re consistent. The counsel that you should humble yourself occurs ten times in the Gospel, as much as loving your neighbor. That’s important, stop worrying about who’s in and who’s out and instead worry about doing the will of the Father. Remember Jesus made understanding the Ten Commandments simple: Love God, love your neighbor. And if you need an example, all you have to do is look to Jesus’ life itself.
This is the point Paul is trying to get across to the church in Philippi. When Paul wrote to the Philippians there were issues of conflict, so he begins that part of the letter with these words. “Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3) And to further reinforce this advice, he offers the example of our Lord. Then what follows in verses 6-11 is so exquisitely crafted, that we think it was a favorite hymn in the church, something like a canticle. Don’t do anything from selfishness or from conceit, but in humility count others better than yourself. And if you have any questions about how, all we have to do is look to the example of our Lord.
In that context counting others “better” means see them as “your betters.” That means be a servant to that other person. Our example is Jesus, “who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, and took on the form of a servant.” (Phil. 2:6) Christ humbled Himself to save the world. So why can’t we humble ourselves to save a relationship? Christ didn’t wait for us to shape up before He came to us. He came to us, as Paul says elsewhere, “while we were yet sinners.” (Rom. 5:8) Christ came to us as we are and forgave us.
Isn’t it time we stopped waiting for the one who has offended us to come crawling, begging for forgiveness. We’re called to go to them, as Christ came to us, and forgive them. Remember, even while Jesus was hanging on the cross He forgave. That’s what humility looks like when it confronts the separation that’s caused by some offense. But this is what humility looks like when it causes a separation that’s the result of class.
Robert Coles, the psychiatrist, writes a lot of books and teaches at Harvard. He wrote a book about Dorothy Day. In the book he shares this story. Dorothy Day, as you may know, is a famous Catholic social worker, the founder of the Catholic Worker. When Coles was a medical student at Harvard, he volunteered to work at the Catholic Worker. He was a Harvard graduate. He was in medical school. He was going to be a psychiatrist. At that time, that was about as high a status as you could get. He knew that and he was proud of it. He was also proud that, as this person, with all these credentials, he was volunteering to help the poor. It was the kind of thing people would sit up and take notice of.
So when he arrived at the premises of the Catholic Worker he asked to see Dorothy Day. He went right to the top. The person he spoke with said that she was in the kitchen. He went into the kitchen, saw her sitting at a table, talking to someone. He had enough medical training to recognize that the man she was talking to was addicted to some dangerous substance. He was disheveled and was obviously a homeless street person. She was sitting at table with him, listening intently to what he had to say so she didn’t notice Coles come into the room. He stood beside the door, waited for her to finish. When she finished the conversation she stood up. That’s when she noticed Coles. She asked, “Do you want to speak to one of us?”
Think about that statement: “Do you want to speak to one of us?” Coles was astounded. Dorothy Day was famous. This man with her was a nobody, a derelict. “Do you wanted to speak to one of us?” Coles had never seen anything like this before. Humility that can identify with another person so completely as to remove all distinctions between them. It cut through all of the boundaries, all the categories that society sets up to separate us from one another. There were just two people, brother and sister, the sister concerned about the brother. He said the experience that day changed his life.
Robert Coles said he learned more in that one moment than he did in four years at Harvard. He saw in that encounter what it means to humble one’s self as our Lord did: “who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but humbled himself, and took on the form of a servant.” Jesus’ statement is clear; “For he who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” The Bible is clear: if we truly want to be disciples of Jesus, then we must be humble; it’s a key characteristic of a Christian.

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