In this sermon, based on Luke 14:1, 7-14, I explore an odd little encounter where Jesus seems to offer shrewd advice on how to gain public honor. This is way out of the norm for Jesus, and yet if we look deeper, there is more going on.
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Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Last Sunday night, the Olympics wrapped up…closing ceremonies…tons of pomp and circumstance…a great big show that culminated with the torch going out. No more games, no more events…no more prime time tv coverage to fill each and every evening…at least not for another couple years until the next winter games.
I’ve been thinking a lot about it though…some of the highlights from the Rio games…and there were quite a few of them…and while I know that everyone has their own favorite events to really pay attention to, I think my highlight was men’s sprinting…and seeing whether or not Usain Bolt, the self-professed “world’s fastest man” could capitalize in his 3 events to pull off what they were calling the triple-triple…He had gotten the gold in the 100m, the 200m, and the 4x100m relay in both of the 2 previous Olympic games, first in Bejing in 2008 and then again in London in 2012…and when it came to men’s sprinting…all eyes were on him to see if he could get all three gold medals again…winning 3 golds in 3 consecutive Olympics.
Now, if Olympic sprinting is your thing…you already know the answer…yes he did it…and he did it with style…his charismatic and flamboyant demeanor on full display after each of the 3 victories. And as exciting as it was…I remember hearing an interview with him after the first win…and he talked about his speed and his training and his natural ability…and then he went on to say how much the sport of sprinting needed him. I was sitting there watching it with my son Jack…and I looked over at him and said…he’s good, but he’s not very humble is he? (pause) Now that comment from me prompted a rather lengthy discussion about humility and social graces…it actually turned into a pretty important teaching moment…so if nothing else…all world records and gold medals aside, Usain Bolt, you provided this…good job.
But when it gets right down to it…this notion of humility is on display today in the gospel lesson…and I have to tell you…I find this passage pretty odd. (pause) Jesus is invited to a banquet, and socially speaking, it’s a pretty big deal. Because not only is he invited by one of the Pharisees, which did happen from time to time…this particular time he’s invited by one of their leaders…and keep in mind that within the Jewish culture…the Pharisees sat WAY high up the social ladder.
They were the religious elite, and in a culture where religion is so closely tied into EVERY aspect of life…this means socially, they were important…and as this is one of the leaders of the Pharisees…this guy…he’s a pretty big deal.
And Jesus has somehow scored an invite, which as we hear, he accepts…but as he sits there that day…he notices something…just how much everyone is jockeying for position…trying to get the seats of honor.
Now I thought a lot about this…and it seemed to be a pretty foreign idea, at least in the social circles where I find myself…this whole “seat of honor” thing doesn’t really apply. But again…different cultural situation. For in Jesus day, your placement at the table was a very big deal. The more prominent you were, the closer you sat to the host…and so as Jesus sits there, he watches everyone elbowing their way up, trying to get the choice spots.
But Jesus…as per usual, recognizes a flaw in all this jockeying…and here’s where it gets weird…Jesus seemingly starts to offer shrewd social advice. (pause) When you come to a banquet, take the lowest seat, for when the host comes in and sees you there, he will move you up in front of everyone and you will be publically honored…BUT…if you seat yourself higher than you should, when the host comes in and sees you…well then right there in front of everyone you’ll get shamed when you are kicked farther on down the table.
So…be shrewd…sit yourself low to get the public honor. (pause) Isn’t that what Jesus is saying here? (pause) My first thought was to focus on the second part of the passage when Jesus switches his focus to the host…but that’s pretty much in the same vein…don’t invite people because of what you’ll get out of it…you already have what you need, so invite the humble. (pause)
Admittedly…this whole passage seems like Jesus giving shrewd tips on social graces…and when I realized that, I just sort of sat there…because that is so completely off from what we normally see. Isn’t Jesus the one who tends to ignore all things social…the one who breaks the rules? The one who seeks the outcast to bring them into relationship even though society deems them unacceptable? (pause)
So just what the heck are we supposed to do with this? (pause) And where is the good news that needs to be proclaimed? (pause) Interestingly enough, as I was having a lot of these thoughts, particularly early in the week, I was in St Paul MN, at Luther Seminary…in conversation with the very professor that had a big role in teaching me how to do this…and she told me “Scott, go through the process…” And I did…and while I won’t bore you with all the details I considered the big picture…something they like to call Eschatological…which is just a fancy word of saying God’s ultimate goal. And I considered Luke’s gospel as a whole. Now Jesus is heading somewhere. A fairly sizable chunk of Luke’s gospel occurs after Jesus has turned his face towards Jerusalem…including this part. And he knows what’s coming in Jerusalem. Betrayal, torture, and death on the cross…
And that…is precisely where God’s ultimate plan…takes shape…that is the place where Jesus, God in human form, overcomes the reality of sin and death here in our flawed reality. And by doing so, God has made it possible for us to move past that barrier that sin has created…in short, inviting us into the ultimate heavenly banquet…which is another fancy way of saying eternal life. (pause)
Through Christ, God has invited us into this heavenly banquet…in short, God is the host…and so, even if we throw out the notion of being humble for the sake of being seen by others…then we darn well better remember to be humble before the host…before the one who invites us in the first place.
And since God is the host…the one doing the inviting…we need to remember that He already has invited the poor and the crippled and the lam and the blind…and we…fall…in…that…list. For we are all broken…we are all the outcast with no way of repaying the one who invites us. (pause)
And truly we ARE invited…and not just into this end times heavenly banquet, but as we hear in the beginning of the Gospel, through Christ, the kingdom has come near…we are invited into it right here…right now…and not through any merit of our own…not because of anything we have to offer…but simply because of the free gift of God…simply because God has chosen this. (pause)
That’s the gospel right there…that is the good news in a nutshell…that nothing we do…no jockeying or elbowing for position earns us the invitation…and likewise, its not about the honor that we attempt to bestow on ourselves…in the end…its about what the host says about us…and our host gives us the title that society scoffs at…but one that can give us no greater thing…than to be called a beloved child of God. (pause)
Now the funny thing about all this…or perhaps the frustrating thing about it…is even though we are assured of this promise…that we are claimed by God…we still mess up…because sin is always present in this life even if we are no longer subject to the penalty…its still there…and this whole notion of humility…its funny how quickly it can turn to pride.
Remember Usain Bolt…and the conversation that he sparked with my son? Admittedly, I was looking down my nose at him…saying that he needed humility…he needed to tone down the self-congratulations. (pause) And as I was doing it…I was passing judgment…talking about how he was doing it wrong…and do you know what they call that? Pride. Self Justification…and in short placing myself in the judgement seat which is somewhere I have no business being. (pause)
And I had to eat some crow on that too…because a day or two after that particular interview, I saw Bolt give another interview…and in the midst…our National Anthem started playing for a medal ceremony in the background…And he stopped the interview…telling the reporter “Hold on, we need to listen to this.” And Usain Bolt, the world’s fastest man…stood there honoring another athlete from a different country. (pause) And in that moment I got the message loud and clear…who needs humility now? (pause…put hand up)
This is our reality…twisted and flawed…and we fit right in…but thanks be to God that he has offered us his grace freely…and invited us into something more. May we humbly accept this gift, and recognize our need for it each and every day. Amen.