Daring to be Humble

A sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 28, 2016.  The lectionary readings are Sirach 10:12-18Psalm 112 Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, and Luke 14:1, 7-14.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Some of you know that some years ago, in 1989, I was the seminary intern at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, which meant that for a year, I lived and worked at 73rd and Madison.    One of the great gifts of being at that church—at that time—was that its pastor of 33 years was retiring and I got to know him, and then be part of all the celebrations. Dr. David H.C. Read was of a generation, Scottish, learned, funny, and warm.  And so, it was only fitting that his retirement celebration should be done over the course of several months.

Some of the more creative people in the congregation decided that there should be a musical review of Dr. Read’s life and work, and so (pulling me into their effort) we combined Broadway music with new words to describe a typical day in the life of the beloved minister.  We practiced and practiced, and finally felt like we were ready—just before Christmas, when we were to perform at a black-tie fundraising event for Dr. Read at the University Club

We got to the club the afternoon of the event, we practiced hard, and we got more excited about our performance.  And then someone noticed the place cards. One of our group pointed out that in the entire hall, we had been given a table at the far end, almost a block away, half-obscured by a column, exactly next to the kitchen door.

It took one of our gang about three minutes to think of switching the place cards.

The night came, and all of the people dressed in their formal clothes who had bought expensive tickets, eventually found their places.  But eight of them were probably a little surprised that their places were at the very back of the room, behind a column, next to the kitchen door.

I don’t know how the other of our little gang felt that night, but I know I kept looking over my shoulder.  I never felt comfortable in my seat, wondering if we were going to be found out, worrying that we would all be thrown out and sent to eat at Sbarro’s or something.  As great as the night was, it was not as good as it could have been.  The food didn’t taste as good.  To me, we didn’t seem to sing and play as well.  Something felt “off.”  And I think that “something” had to do with the seats our group had insisted on taking.

Our Gospel today tells of another banquet.  The places are set, the seats are taken, and people have “found their place,” in more ways than one.  Jesus notices that some of the guests seem to be scrambling (not for bread, but) for the places of honor, and so Jesus speaks to them in what first sounds like common sense. “Don’t always go for the very best seat.  Someone more important than you might show up and then you’ll be embarrassed when you’re asked to move.  Instead, sit in the worst place.  That way, you’ll be honored when you’re invited to sit in a better seat.”

But Jesus keeps on going.  He says (perhaps to the host, perhaps to anyone who will listen), “When you have a banquet, don’t just invite those from whom you expect a reciprocal invitation.  Instead, be radical.  “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”  (It doesn’t seem like Jesus is concerned with getting invited back to this particular Pharisee’s house!)

We can easily imagine the look on the Pharisee’s face when he hears these words. Maybe we can even imagine our own reaction if a guest began to lecture us about who should and who should not be invited to the gathering.

But imagine the reaction to those who are not sitting at the table.  Imagine how those words must have sounded as they drifted out the window to the people looking over the hedge, trying to get some leftovers, digging through the trash to see what’s there, perhaps begging the cook for anything that might be thrown out.  Imagine THEIR reaction.

At this party, at this banquet, Jesus offers both the guests and the uninvited a view of how God sees the world and how God throws a party.

In God’s eyes—at God’s great banquet—(the feast that has already begun, the feast (God willing) that we will one day join)— at that feast, those who exalted themselves in this life are humbled.  “The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart [that has been] withdrawn from its Maker.” (Sirach 10:12) And those who were humble find themselves exalted.

In this teaching of Jesus, we are, each of us, confronted—wherever we may be in life, whatever our position, perceived or real.  To those of us who might be feeling pretty proud of ourselves, who might be feeling as though we enjoy some special blessing from God—Jesus reminds us, “Don’t assume the best spot because there may be others ahead of you.  They may not look like you expect.  They may not speak your language.  They may not dress or act like you. They may not understand religion like you—beware:  Those who exalt themselves, will be humbled.

But Jesus’ words also confront those who may have confused humility with humiliation.  Jesus speaks to those who don’t think they’re invited—whether because they don’t feel good enough, or holy enough, or smart enough, or attractive enough, or talented, or rich, or clever, or… fill in the blank.  There is a place for you at the table, God says.  You are enough. You are God’s beloved!  Just as you are.

Our Gospel, really, is about humility—humility that happens when one lives like Jesus lived.  Humility has to do with being grounded, with being “right sized.”  The word comes from “hummus,” meaning “earthy,” and “earthiness.”  And so, to be humble is to be rooted in the earth, to reflect and recall one’s own humanity.  (From dust we have come, and to dust again we will return.)

What if the church were a place where humility could be practiced, could be taught to the young, modeled by the wise, and developed?  What if the church were a place where humility became something everyone worked at—sometimes with success, but often with failure?

The poet Ann Weems such a church in one of her poems as she begins by wondering, “Where is the church?”  She then answers by suggesting

The church of Jesus Christ
is where people go when they skin their knees or their hearts
is where frogs become princes and Cinderella dances beyond midnight
is where judges don’t judge and each child of God is beautiful and precious

The church of Jesus Christ
is where home is
is where heaven is
is where a picnic is communion and people break bread together on their knees.

(excerpted from “The church of Jesus Christ” in Reaching for Rainbows, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1980)

In other words, the church, is where people risk humility.  The French philosopher and social critic Simone Weil read today’s Gospel and thought of the cross of Christ.  The cross, she suggests, can be understood as a balance, as a lever.  “Heaven coming down to earth raises earth to heaven.”  We lower what we want to lift, she points out.  And so, to lower oneself, raises not only the other person, but can raise the whole other side of the equation.  Weil loves physics and she looked at the cross and its way of humility almost as a kind of spiritual physics.  (Gravity and Grace, London: Ark Paperbacks, 1987 (1952), p. 84.)

The “cross as balance or lever” makes me think of the cross as a kind of seesaw.  And that feels less like a law imposed (“Be humble”) than an invitation extended (“Try on humility, and see where it leads you.”)  The invitation to humility is a little like the one to come and feast at the banquet.

Christ invites us to try the seesaw. Just try it and see what happens.  Try lowering the self so that another can be raised and see what happens.  See how it feels.  See if it changes anything.  See if you notice anything about God.

“The church of Jesus Christ
is where people go when they skin their knees or their hearts
is where frogs become princes and Cinderella dances beyond midnight
is where judges don’t judge and each child of God is beautiful and precious. . .

May have the faith occasionally to get on the seesaw, to lower ourselves, and with grace help each other learn true humility, so that all might join in the feast of God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.


About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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