Listen to the sermon here:
Scripture: Proverbs 25:6-7; Psalm 112; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1,7-14
Who sat at the head of the table in your growing-up family? Or did you have a round table? If your father or mother sat at the head of a rectangular table, did you ever try to sit there before your parent arrived at the chair? What did your mother or father say when you did that? If you did not do that, why not? Were you a content sort of person? Did you like you own seat well enough that you never even thought of sitting at another place, especially the place of a parent?
How about in a classroom? Did you try to get to class early so that you could have the seat you liked best or did it not matter to you? Some people like to sit in front to be noticed more by the teacher or to hear better or see better or the air conditioner was not blowing in the front. Some people like to sit in the back where they will not be noticed and can fall asleep if that happens. Yet, a person may want to sit next to a person he or she especially likes or next to a person who is a good student for copying purposes or simply hoping some of the knowledge will fly through the air to be shared.
How about in church? We joke about people who have a certain pew and a certain spot on the pew where they always sit. This sounds ungracious until we find ourselves doing the very same thing. We may have chosen that certain spot for a good reason: to hear, to see, to have enough leg room, with or without air-conditioning falling on us. Or maybe it was the very pew where our parents sat when they still lived. Maybe a parent needs to sit in the back for easy exit if a child becomes too noisy or has other needs.
Do we have a certain parking spot at work? How do we feel on that day when someone else found that spot ahead of us? If we are an up-tight person, this can set the tone negatively for the whole day. If we are a more laid-back person, this may be a momentary annoyance until we drive around and around and all the spots are taken. Then … we lose our nonchalance and become annoyed with anxiety. We are going to be late arriving at our desk or at the time clock or to relieve a person from the previous shift or for a meeting that the boss has called. Why of all days, did someone else take my parking spot which, of course, does not have my name on it?
So “place” is an important concept. Sometimes we think we are in better standing in a department than is reality. What a shock it is when someone else is given the promotion which we privately thought would be ours. Maybe we did not even keep our expectations to ourselves and this makes the humiliation worse. So it was in our Gospel lesson today and in the lesson from Proverbs. We shall not assume a welcome place at the head of the table or even close to the head of the table. We shall assume that we belong at the foot of the table. Then if we are called to come higher toward the head, it is seen as a privilege; it feels like a privilege.
Now in case we are called to a higher position at the table, let us not be haughty toward the people who are seated at the foot. Look with love toward everyone; looking both ways with humility – both toward the head and the foot. Just because we were invited to a higher seat this time does not guarantee that place every time. We may not even get invited a next time. Honor is fleeting, you know.
Actually, Jesus is saying in Luke 14, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Well, that is fairly clear. Community meals are in God’s favor. How about in our own home instead of opening the door of the church for these people? Some people are so humble that this is not strange or repulsive to them – inviting the homeless into their home to sit at the table – maybe even to sit at the head. This could be Christ, you know. Yes, it could. The Bible tells us so.
So where is pride? Does it belong here at all? Even a little bit? Do we brag that we have done this? Do we tell what we are doing in pride – to make us look righteous – or in the hope that other people will catch this servant-hood from us? Is it okay to have pride because we have opened our door in this way?
Is it okay to have pride about anything? Our little baby sleeps all night. Our child has learned to read at an early age. Our child has been invited to skip a grade or take accelerated classes. Should we not be proud? Our teen-age daughter or son has just sacrificed a new coat to give it to a school friend who was coatless. Our young adult child has offered a kidney for a friend whose blood matches. Should we not be proud? We have just earned a college degree – the first person in our family to have done so. Should we not be proud?
Where does encouragement and boasting divide? Where does justifiable pride part ways with the beautifully shaped, large raw egg sitting on the slanted top of a wall? How does living ostentatiously differ from having the same wealth but living modestly while supporting the local homeless shelter, a college scholarship fund or an irrigation system somewhere in the world where drought exists?
Yes, where is the divide? Which attitude is acceptable in God’s sight? The writer of Hebrews suggests that the true measuring stick is love. If genuine love is present in all of our thinking and actions we don’t need to ask how much is too much pride. Genuine love comes from God. If we are infused with God’s love, we don’t need to think pride and humility. God’s love will shine through us. We will glow with this caring. This caring does not ask, “Can I afford this?” This caring does not ask, “Can I use this donation as a tax-deductible gift?” This caring does not ask, “Is this person good enough to have in my house?”
If we are filled with God’s love we won’t be thinking that we should try to slip into that high seat because it will improve our worldly reputation. It could lead to a higher position. We won’t be thinking about the order of the seats around this table. Think communion table. This is where equality before God is real. If we make our own laws about who is welcome at this table, we are slamming the door on God’s love. Let us reconsider our rules for the communion table. Let God’s love fill us and be obvious.
How can we spread this love? How can we develop the love in the first place? We don’t develop it. Love comes from God. It is the love we find in 1 Corinthians 13. Love is not selfish. Love does not insist on its own way. Love is patient and kind, never jealous, or boastful, proud, or rude. Love is not quick-tempered. Love rejoices in the truth, is always supportive, loyal, hopeful, and trusting. Love never fails. The greatest asset in the whole world is love!
Imagine love gathered around the table – the kitchen table, the conference table at work; the conference table in Washington, D.C, the conference table at the United Nations, the conference table at school where the superintendent and the principal are seated among the parents and teachers and school board members. Imagine love in all of our churches where financial decisions are made in love for God and each other, asking is this what God would have us do, asking what old expense do we need to keep, what new endeavor should we undertake? Undertake is a funny word, do you not think? It sounds like we are burying something or someone we don’t like.
What new endeavors should we embrace? Do we have new ideas within us? Is there someone in our midst who is harboring new ideas but afraid to offer them? Let us embrace this person and his or her idea and let it happen. Let this person be heard. Give this person a higher seat not encumbered with pride but lifted with opportunity to share in God’s work. Do not all ideas come from God? There is no place for pomposity in a congregation. Let each of us beware because there is a bit of pomposity in each of us. It gets us nowhere except to the foot of the table or even a lost seat at the table. A great guide for a balance of humility and self-confidence is given to us by the writer of Hebrews. You will notice that the basis is love – the agape love that is God’s pure love. This is God’s embodiment in ourselves.
I would like us to hear verses from Hebrews 13. “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’ So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?’ Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”
Yes, God’s love is a sacramental love. We are called to embody this sacramental love – this agape love. Let the fruit of our lips and our actions confess our belief in this loving but demanding God. Let the nature of his love become our nature. Amen