August 30, 2010

Sermon 8/29/2010

Sermon for Proper 17 C
August 29, 2010
Michael Coffey

Texts: Luke 14:1,7-14,
Hebrews 13:1-8,15-16


Where do we belong?
What is our proper place?
Way down low, at the bottom?
Should we wallow in our worthlessness?
Simmer in our sinfulness?
Where do we belong?
What is our proper place?
Way up high, at the top?
Should we parade around in pride?
Exalt ourselves in our ego-centered ways?
Where do we belong?

Jesus confronts us with this question
and makes us rethink where we place ourselves
and where we place others in relative position to us.
Jesus went to a dinner party
where who you are, where you sit,
and who you invite all came under divine scrutiny,

I have to say this first:
I blame Jesus for ruining church potlucks
for the past 2,000 years.
Jesus taught us that the first will be last,
and the last will be first;
the exalted will be humbled,
and the humble exalted.
So, ever since, after the potluck table is filled with deviled eggs,
and tossed salads, and baked beans,
and a few things you don’t quite know what that is,
who’s gonna get the meal started?
Who’s gonna go first?
No one!
No one wants to go first,
and seem pushy or arrogant or exalted.
Or maybe no one wants to go first,
because secretly they are calculating that if they go last,
then they really will be first in God’s eyes.
And some folks are calculating how to be in the exact middle
so as to avoid being too far off either way.
Usually what happens is
the pastor ends up going first
I guess, because we can either honor the pastor,
or cunningly let the pastor be last in God’s eyes for going first.
I don’t mind it so much
because I’m usually pretty hungry
and I like to get a deviled egg before they are all gone.
I heard, by the way, there was a potluck here
where almost everyone brought deviled eggs.
That’s the nature of the potuck, I guess,
and sometimes your luck is off.
But at least then, it didn’t matter who went first or last,
everyone got the same thing.

Well, I blame Jesus for doing this to us.
He just couldn’t let that dinner party go on
without butting in and commenting on the social hierarchies
and the necessity of humility in human relationships.
And, I must say, thank God he did.

Some of us do suffer from that incessant original sin
known as pride.
We really do sense that we are at some higher place.
Maybe we don’t like to admit it to ourselves,
but it slips out in our conversations and our judgments
and our choices of who to hang around with
and who to invite to dinner.

But for some of us,
the problem is not that we place ourselves first and above,
but that we place ourselves constantly last, and below.
Many of us feel unworthy, humiliated because of our past,
less than because of our income or lack of status.
Some of us have always been told we belong at the bottom,
and we keep on believing it.

Almost all of our social relationships and structures work like this.
There is high and low, first and last.
And we buy into it in so many ways
we don’t even realize it.
And even though we’re going to talk about how the church
is not that kind of social arrangement,
sadly, it most often does function that way.
There is high and low.
There is first and last.
There are respectable and disrespected.
There are the invited and the uninvited,
the welcomed and the unwelcomed.
There are whole congregations and denominations
ranked by class and race and education and nationality.
A great deal of Christian history and talk and squabble
has been about who to keep away from the table,
who not to invite to the party.

A new Lutheran church was formed this past week,
the North American Lutheran Church.
It was formed by folks upset with the ELCA
for deciding a year ago to allow congregations that wanted to
to bless same-sex unions,
and to call pastors to serve them who are in such blessed unions.
I have described this break away movement
as being a church formed by what people are against
more than what they are for,
and many of them don’t much agree on a lot of other things.
And I don’t think that makes for a strong or faithful group.
But what is striking about this new denomination
as we listen to Jesus today,
is that this new church is really being formed
by an agreement on who is not welcomed to the table,
who is not invited to the party.
And in light of Jesus’ teaching in today’s Gospel,
but more in light of his whole life and death,
this cannot be the basis for being church
in any strong, faithful sense.
Oh, I know it has been for the church, for a lot of the church,
for Lutherans and others,
for a long time,
maybe even for ourselves in our own diminished ways of being church.
There has been too much deciding who is worthy to attend this feast,
and who is unworthy.
But it is not the church of our Lord Jesus
when we spend energy and resources
on working hard to disinvite those whom God has already made part of the fellowship of the table of Christ.
We keep getting the impression from Scripture
that Jesus keeps inviting more people to the table
than we would choose,
and the party should be bigger than we allow.

So, how do we meet right here,
together, in true humility,
on the ground, on the earth,
in our honest humanness,
which is what humility means?
How do we honestly and openly come together
on a level place with each other, (move out of pulpit down to floor)
and see Christ with us right here and now?
How do we stop putting ourselves into some degraded place
where we don’t count as much because we are the wrong gender,
or the wrong race,
or the wrong sexual orientation,
or the wrong age,
or the wrong educational level,
or we go to the wrong school?
How do we stop lifting ourselves up so high above others
that we find out how lonely it is at the top,
and keep fearing the inevitable fall back to earth?

We do it by the grace of God,
who meets us in Christ Jesus
right here, on a level with us,
in the humility of Jesus hanging out with all the lowly,
and in the glory of Jesus lifted up on the cross,
joining us in our full humanity, even in suffering and death.
In true humility,
we don’t get too high or too low.
We all meet in the middle,
on the ground,
just being what we are, human,
trusting that is good enough for God,
and good enough for each other.

In this sense
we see that the church is a social experiment,
it is God’s experiment in the laboratory of humanity,
an experiment in humility shared
in loving community,
in showing hospitality to strangers,
and giving and inviting and feeding
without repayment required.
It has often been a troubled and misguided experiment
because we forgot the parameters and the purpose.
We thought too often in the church
that church itself should be another place
to play the ranking game of high and low, first and last,
exalted and humbled.
We thought too often that church could be the one place
that maybe we could find a place to sit a little higher,
because we got so tired of having to sit so low everywhere else.

It is hard for us all
to stop playing the game of placing ourselves too high or too low.
It might be worth a radical experiment now and then
to pull us back to the earthiness,
the humanness of our lives with God.

We might do some things now and then in worship
that shake up the order of things,
not because the order of things is wrong,
but because we so quickly and easily turn the order of things
into one more hierarchy of importance and power.
As I just wrote about in my newsletter column
we might rethink how we enter worship in true humility.
We might try different rituals and patterns
so it becomes shockingly real
that we are all here on the ground together before God.

We might look at older traditions, and learn from Muslims,
and try taking off our shoes when we worship,
and share in a strange, socially awkward,
but deeply connected to the ground humility.
(remove shoes and invite others to if they wish)
Or we might practice the foot washing ritual we do on Maundy Thursday
more often, and ritualize true humility as Jesus lived it.
We might occasionally forgo the expensive vestments
that we worship leaders wear. (remove vestments)
Even though their intention is to diminish the role of the individual person
who is leading the assembly in worship,
we can’t deny that they also have a way of elevating that person,
putting him or her at the head of the table,
a bit too pristine and untouchable and,
if you believe in a pristine and untouchable God,
than maybe closer to God than the rest.


Beyond worship,
we might rethink some of the ways we live together
and structure ourselves
and how we welcome and invite others.
If we listen to Jesus talk about how our social relationships
need to reflect better the love of God,
then we will think a lot about all of these things,
and keep the experiment called church alive and lively
and rich and engaging,
never stuck in a fixed pecking order.
And we might even have someone go first in line today
at the rally day picnic, and stop making the pastor first and last.

We live this social experiment called church because we know
that God has met us in Jesus
in our lowly humanity, where we discovered we are not too low,
and certainly not too high,
but just where we are and need to be.
Jesus comes to us in this table fellowship
inviting us as the lowly and loved,
joining in our humility as God with us.
This is the love that saves humanity.
The same humble love we live as best we can in our lives.
This is the love of God in Christ, and Christ in you.
This is how God meets us and joins us and saves us:
on our level, in our pain,
through our death,
becoming as earthy and grounded as Jesus,
as alive as the words we speak,
as present as the bread and wine of this feast
where each one of you is invited
to come, humbly open your hands,
and receive God’s merciful love
right here on the ground.

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