August 25, 2016
I was recently made aware of a book entitled, “The second Book of Insults”. Evidently, there was enough demand for a book on insults they needed a sequel. I have to admit, I admire a good insult, a putdown if you will—given with the right attitude of course. Our family, I'm sorry to admit, are pretty good at the putdown given with love. We boys especially like to get together and show Julie how much we “love” her! An example? Matthew and I mentioned how nice it was that David and Katie named their new puppy after Julie—gabby! But we like to get each other too, although it seems we've gotten a little lazy—it seems most of the putdowns now have to do with how much hair we each have left. David is the only one with a full head of ammunition left!
A good putdown can be memorable. How many of you remember the famous exchange between Winston Churchill and Lady Astor? Lady Astor was not a fan of the Prime Minister and one day told him, “If I were you wife, I'd put poison in your tea.” This was not a loving putdown, but Churchill didn't hesitate a minute with his reply. “Madam, if I were you husband, I'd drink it!”
One more Churchill putdown, this one given good-naturedly, The playwright George Bernard Shaw sent two tickets to Mr. Churchill for his newest play. Two tickets for opening night in London. Attached was this note, “Here are two tickets for the opening night of my new play, one for you and one for a friend—if you have one.” Churchill sent back a note of his own with the tickets, “I cannot attend opening night. Please send me two tickets for the next night...if there is one.”
Today's message isn't so much about put downs as it is the desire of the leadership of the Jewish people desire to elevate themselves in the eyes of the people. It is about putting others “in their place” by making sure the others are put down in the seats they belong in while getting for themselves the choicest seats; the seats of honor. The story is about false pride and true humility. But the parable of Jesus also suggests the idea of God's judgment at the end of days. The metaphor of the great banquet in the kingdom of God is suggested by the meals scenarios in today's reading. Jesus did use the phrase, “the resurrection of the righteous” to conclude today's reading. It is in fact, the first time Jesus used the term resurrection in the gospel of Luke. It seems Jesus is looking beyond just how we are honored or not honored in this life but how we will be seen at the judgment.
So let's look at this with two parts; what Jesus is teaching us about living a life of humility here on earth as children of God and his use of these parables to teach us about the judgment day.
The host at this dinner party was a prominent member of the community. Luke says he was a ruler...and a Pharisee. This was a party that would have included anybody who was anybody in Jerusalem. And those that were there, wanted the choice seats. And Jesus noticed. Here's how Luke put it, “When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable.” Luke called it a parable, it seems more like an out and out lesson telling the people exactly how they should act, “do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished has been invited and the host may come and say to you, `Give this person your place,' and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But go and sit down at the lowest place, so that your host may say to you, `Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all”. Pretty clear and usually the hidden message of most parables is not this evident. It is clear that Jesus is warning against allowing our self importance to cause us to make socially unacceptable decisions; such as where to sit. Or who to hang out with. Or who to invite to your own banquets. And don't we allow our egos to mess with our better judgment? Especially in High School! High School with its cliques and its jocks and the mean girls, the troublemakers and "cool kids"--its peer pressure is a microcosm of the desire for status in the grown up world. It is not as obvious perhaps in our day to day lives, but it is there. In the workplace; who's on the way up, who's on the way down, who knows the ins and outs of the office politics? It is not that much different than High School. But...the children of God, the followers of Christ are to have a different agenda. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” We are to be like Christ and he tells us his nature, “for I am gentle and humble in heart.” (Matthew 11: 29) We want to emulate Jesus. The author of Ephesians joins in the call, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4: 2-3)
CS Lewis wrote about the battle that goes on within each of us, between the proper balance of pride and humility; we do need both. “Pride is essentially competitive. Pride get no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more than the next man.” Jesus noted this in the seating at the banquet; it wasn't about getting a good seat, it was about getting a seat better than the others in attendance got.
I said there was also a suggestion of the final judgment in today's reading. That same section from CS Lewis also suggests what pride means to our eternity. “Unless you know God as...immeasurably superior to yourself—you do not know God.” And of course the heart of our hope is that knowing God and God's grace is at the core of the salvation promise. We need a dose of humility to admit that we need God's grace. Lewis again, “Whenever we find that our religious life is making us feel that we are as good--(or) better than someone else—I think we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God, but by the devil. The trouble begins when you go from thinking, 'I have pleased him; all is well' to 'what a fine person I must be to have done it'”1
If we are honest, we've all struggled with this conflict of the soul. Pride is important. We are to do our very best in our endeavors, in our work, school, church work, family chores; it is an expectation of the person seeking to follow Christ. But the difference is in our objective; to please others or to show what a fine person we are. And if we recognize the hidden lesson in the judgment parable, it may be helpful to look at another judgment story, from Matthew 25 the judgment of the nations. If you recall, Jesus is dividing the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He selects some to his right hand for their inheritance into the kingdom of God. He selects others to move to his left hand for eternal punishment. The difference, the reason for the division? Who thought about others before themselves? At the judgment, everyone is surprised. Everyone. Those that got rejected were surprised, they thought they were in the in-group. Even more significant to our lesson, those who served and get their reward are surprised. It is about humility. The right hand group were not thinking about a reward; they were thinking about helping people in need, putting others before themselves. Our lesson, don't worry about salvation, about who's in and who's out; love and serve others...in humility. Our epistle adds some practical suggestions, “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers. Remember those who are in prison...Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have”. And it all should tie into our relationship with God in Christ. None of us live this Christian life perfectly. And each Sunday we are reminded of this truth when we share a confession, read in unison before God and one another. Julie selects and edits these prayers and often her message matches the word for the day. Too often we read through them without letting the confession touch our souls. Two weeks ago, this was part of our confession: “Sometimes we think we are much better than we really are, and we look down on others. Sometimes we think we are much worse than we are and beat ourselves up.” Today's the same idea: “drawn to the false light of looking good in the eyes of others, instead of the true light of being of service to others.” When we gather together in community, it is a chance to be lifted up. Put downs may be entertaining and sometimes funny; but it is much more important in our church family to be building up one another. We do laugh more than the average church I think, but we also are serious about praying for one another. That is a way we build up the body; to support each other in times of trial and sorrow and pain. In our bible studies, we are open to differing opinions and we try to create an atmosphere where anything can be shared. We build up the body by sharing in doubts and questions and honest revelations. At the time of death, we pray, we hug, we serve. We offer opportunities to serve the community; WINGS, Red Box project, food shelf, Ecumen. Service builds us up and supports the growth of those whom we serve. In this world, service done in humility is the closest we can come to being the body of Christ. Humility means we serve not for reward or respect or the honor we may receive, but out of a heart of love. But we are promised a reward. But be careful on judging who's in and who's out. Here is a little poem:
I dreamt death came the other night, and heaven's gate swung wide.
An angel with halo bright ushered me inside;
And there, to my astonishment stood folks I'd judged and labeled
as quite unfit, of little worth, and spiritually disabled.
Indignant words came to my lips but never were set free,
For every face showed stunned surprise—not one expected me!
One of the resources I used was quite clear, “this is a judgment parable.” But the judgment is never up to us. We have a judge, a judge who emptied himself and took the form of a servant. A judge who lived his life here on earth in humble service. A judge who gave his all that we might have life through his grace. Our judgment is a judgment of grace. Thanks be to God!
It is a judgment parable but it is also a service parable. I want to finish with the story of missionary Doug Nichols. He went to India in 1967 but almost immediately became infected with tuberculosis. He was put in a sanitarium there in India.
Since he was stuck in the sanitarium, Doug decided to try his missionary work there. He tried to reach the people with the good news of the gospel. He had zero success. He grew more and more discouraged, wondering why God had allowed this to happen to his mission.
One night, around 2 in the morning, Doug woke up coughing. He noticed the old man across the aisle was awake and trying to get out of bed. But he was too weak and fell back into bed, exhausted and silently weeping. A little later the scene repeated itself. Then the smell that permeated the room revealed that the old man was trying to reach the bathroom and had not made it. The nurses who had to clean him up were angry and one even slapped him in the face. Nichols said that the old man just laid there and cried.
The next night, the scene was repeated only this time Doug got out of his bed to try to help. Sick and weak himself, Doug was able to lift the old man and carry him to the bathroom and he assisted the man to complete his task. Then he carried him back to his bed. The old man kissed Doug on the cheek and told him thank you in Indian.
The next morning, when Doug woke up, there was one of the other Indian patients waiting with a hot cup of tea for him. All throughout the day, people came up to Doug asking for his gospel tracts...everyone including nurses, interns and doctors received the gospel message from Doug. His work for the gospel was being fulfilled and Doug said, “I simply took an old man to the bathroom. Anyone could have done that.”
Not anyone, not the person looking for a place of honor. Not someone who was looking out for number one. In humility and with an eye to living out the message of service in love, Doug did what no one else would do. And he built up the kingdom of God; and he served not only that man, but Jesus. Amen.
Hymn: What Does the Lord Require?
1CS Lewis Mere Christianity ch. 8