Invited

seesaw

Children play on a seesaw constructed through the border between the US and Mexico.

A sermon for September 1, 2019, the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture readings are Sirach 10:12-18, Psalm 112 , Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, and Luke 14:1, 7-14

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Our Gospel today reminds me of a big dinner several years ago. It was a dinner that was part of a fund-raiser for a charity.  While I supported the cause, bought a ticket, and sent my check, when time came for the event; I pictured what would happen. I imagined the event with an obligatory cocktail time, an awkward time of trying to find a place to sit (with flashbacks to junior high, when some tables have the popular kids and random spaces are left for the misfits), for a likely dinner of mediocre chicken, boiled vegetables, and some kind of overly sweet dessert.  Then, there would be a series of speakers, awards given, a final pitch for us to give more money, and then I’d get home around 10 pm. I had given my money, supported the cause, and wouldn’t be missed. So I didn’t go.

The next day, when I glanced on Facebook, I was surprised to see pictures from the previous night’s dinner.  It turns out that my place card had been at a table with several good friends, an Episcopal bishop, and the president of the organization, who was hoping to welcome me back to New York, after my several years in Washington.  The way I knew this was that a friend with a great sense of humor not only took a picture of my name on the place card and my absence, but then went around the table, holding my name tag between herself and the various table guests.

Of all the various dinner scenarios I had imagined, I hadn’t imagined there might be assigned seats, much less, that it might be a really fun event with wonderful people!

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 to the servants, the cooks, or those who felt like they should sit in the far corners of the room.  Imagine how Jesus’s words of welcome 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 or what might have been 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.

Some of us might feel a little like I did about the fancy charity dinner I talked about a few minutes ago. We sometimes under-estimate the importance of our showing up—that people might be expecting us, needing us, or wanting us.  Sometimes, folks can confuse humility with humiliation.  In this Gospel, 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.  He’s saying, “There is a place for you at the table.”  You are enough. You are God’s beloved!  Just as you are—just as you are, in God’s eyes, though perhaps you have forgotten.

But Jesus also address those of us who might be feeling pretty proud of ourselves, who might be feeling as though we enjoy some special blessing from God.  He reminds us, “Don’t assume the best spot has your name on it, just because you’ve worked hard, or shown up early, or put in your dues.  There may be others ahead of you, and you might be surprised.  They may not look like you expect.  They may not speak your language.  They may not dress or act like you.  They may not be “deserving,” in your eyes. But beware: Those who exalt themselves, will be humbled.

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 we 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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