Sometimes I sit down to write a sermon and the words just flow. The topic seems clear, an illustration is in my head, the outline is ready and the writing goes swiftly. Sometimes, like this week, nothing comes to me. I study the readings, I look at the commentaries, go to sermon websites; I even asked the pastors at our cluster meeting on Wednesday if they had any insights. Seems they all struggled with today's passages. And I don't know why. I mean humility seems a clear topic from the gospel-- we don't seek the best seat, we wait to be invited. Hebrews has a lot of good topics-- love, hospitality, remember prisoners, honor marriage, avoid greed and live in contentment, remember to praise the Lord, do good and share. Any of these would make a good sermon topic, don't you think? But nothing grabbed me there either. Finally, I ran across a story, not related directly to the readings, but one that seemed to share profound truths about how showing mutual love can change a life.
One of the sites I visited compared this story of the seats at the banquet with the pecking order in Jr. High School. I remember well the tension that accompanied moving from our country school to the Jr. High with it's lockers and moving from classroom to classroom, different teacher for different classes. And city kids who weren't always kind to us country kids. There was a definite social order in Jr. High! And the lunch room! There were the tables with the cool kids, the jocks, the nerds and the FFAers. (that's where I sat.) There still are such social constructs I imagine. And it is sad that if your lot falls on the lower social seats early in life. If you are assigned one of the lowest seats even in elementary school, it can affect your whole life. And I'm using school as a common experience. But judging people, assigning worth goes on in business and in communities and even in churches. And in our gospel, Jesus points out that it ought not be so. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." In Matthew's gospel, chapter 25 Jesus gave a long treatise on the fact that how we treat others is critical in how we will be judged. “When... the Son of Man will take his place on his glorious throne. Then all the nations will be arranged before him and he will sort the people out, much as a shepherd sorts out sheep and goats, putting sheep to his right and goats to his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:
I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.’”
I'm not reading the whole passage, but you probably remember these righteous could not recall seeing Jesus and certainly not serving him in these ways. “And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these... you did it to me.’” And of course the scene then went to the judgment that will come to those who did not serve “the least of these.”
And so today's readings; Jesus reminds all of us that it is not about who is deserving our love or our care, but serving the least of these. And Hebrews, addressed to the churches who claim Christ as Lord, says “Let mutual love continue.” And I've taught before that there are several Greek words that are translated love in English. Here, it is philios which means brotherly love, love for sisters and brothers in the congregation of faith. And we see that lived out here often as we care for each other. But Jesus makes clear that our love extends beyond these walls. It extends to the weak and the lost, those who weep and mourn, those who have not the benefits so many of us enjoy; those who cannot repay anything we do for them.
And so on the story I ran across. I compiled this account from a couple sources. It is the story of Jean Thompson and Ted Stallard, a fifth grade teacher and a boy who undoubtedly qualified as the one of "the least."
Each September, Miss Thompson greeted her new students with the words, “Boys and girls, I love you all the same. I have no favorites.” Of course, she wasn’t being completely truthful. Teachers do have favorites, and what is worse, they sometimes have students they just don’t like.
Teddy Stallard was a boy Miss Thompson just didn’t like. He was a sullen boy who sat slouched in his seat with his head down. When she spoke to him he always answered in monosyllables of “yes” and “no.” His clothes were musty & his hair unkempt. He was an unattractive boy in just about every way. Whenever she marked Teddy’s papers she got a certain perverse delight out of putting Xs next to the wrong answers. And when she put the “F” at the top of his papers, she always did it with a flair.
If only she had studied his records more carefully. They read: 1st grade: Ted shows promise with his work and attitude, but (has) poor home situation. 2nd grade: Ted could do better. Mother seriously ill. Receives little help from home. 3rd grade: Ted is good boy but too serious. He is a slow learner. His mother died this year. 4th grade: Ted is very slow, but well-behaved. His father shows no interest whatsoever.
Christmas arrived that school year. The children piled elaborately wrapped gifts on their teacher's desk. Ted brought one too. It was wrapped in brown paper and held together with Scotch Tape. Miss Thompson opened each gift, as the children crowded around to watch. Out of Ted's package fell a gaudy rhinestone bracelet, with half of the stones missing, and a half empty bottle of cheap perfume. The children began to snicker. But she silenced them by splashing some of the perfume on her wrist, and letting them smell it. She put the bracelet on too.
At day's end, after the other children had left, Ted came by the teacher's desk and said, "Miss Thompson, you smell just like my mother. And the bracelet looks real pretty on you. I'm glad you like my presents." He left and Miss Thompson got down on her knees and asked God to forgive her for her mistreatment of Ted and asked God to change her attitude.
The next day, the children were greeted by a reformed teacher -- one committed to loving each of them. Especially the slow ones. Especially Ted. Surprisingly -- or maybe, not surprisingly, Ted began to show great improvement. He actually caught up with most of the students and even passed a few.
Time came and went. Miss Thompson heard nothing from Ted for a long time. Then, one day, she received this note: Dear Miss Thompson: I wanted you to be the first to know. I will be graduating second in my class. Love, Ted.
Four years later, another note arrived: Dear Miss Thompson: They just told me I will be graduating first in my class. I wanted you to be first to know. The university has not been easy, but I liked it. Love, Ted.
And four years later: Dear Miss Thompson: As of today, I am Theodore Stallard, M.D. How about that? I wanted you to be the first to know. I am getting married next month, the 27th to be exact. I want you to come and sit where my mother would sit if she were alive. You are the only family I have now; Dad died last year.
Miss Thompson attended that wedding, and sat where Ted's mother would have sat. The compassion she had shown that young man entitled her to that privilege.
Jesus suggested in his parable that when we live out humility, we may be lifted up. That's what happened for Miss Thompson. Like the one who in humility sat at the lower place and the host said, 'Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you,” Miss Thompson was privileged to sit in the place of honor at Ted's wedding. She humbled herself by accepting Ted's Christmas presents and changing her attitude. She realized in real life these words of Jesus, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." We are faithful to the call of Jesus when we live out the love of others, especially those who have not been blessed as we have. For we have been blessed. Oh, we can always find comparisons to those who have more... more possessions, more prestige, more power. But our call is not to get more but to give more; to serve our neighbor in need, to love the unlovable. It was an interesting turn in our gospel story. Luke wrote that the Pharisees were watching Jesus closely, looking for a mistake. But the next sentence tells us that Jesus was watching as well, “ he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor,” and thus the parable about humbling ourselves and being exalted later.
As we take this opportunity to examine our lives, may our lives be lives of service, humbly giving up our places of honor to others. May God open our eyes to the people in our lives who need to be shown they are worthy of love, to a Ted Stoddard in our world. No matter our role; teacher, grandparent, daughter, student, parent-- may we be filled with the love of Jesus to share with our world. Amen.
Hymn: Jesu, Jesu, Fill us with your Love 367 PH