Sunday, August 28, 2016
Breaking the Cycle, a sermon Year C Proper 17
Year C Proper 17
28 Aug 2016, St. David’s Episcopal, Aylett, VA
“Breaking the Cycle”
Listening to the news lately has been discouraging. The earthquakes in Italy, the floods in Louisiana, the non-stop coverage of this election cycle. My daughter stopped me the other day to complain about how bad the world is getting. I think that she is paying attention to the news more, instead of hearing Blah Blah Blah. She is paying attention, and listening in, and in doing so she is seeing what a state of affairs we seem to find ourselves in.
And then Jesus comes along in today’s lectionary reading and tells us to do things exactly opposite from how we seem to be about them. The world teaches us do unto others before they can do unto you. Jesus calls us to a different place and a different standard of interaction.
Jesus calls us to do the exact opposite of what we are taught, or what might be our natural inclination.
If you ever watched the sitcom Seinfeld, one episode had George Costanza do the exact opposite of what he would normally do. If he normally would look out for himself, he put himself last. If he normally turned right, he would turn left. At the end of the episode, he learned that to be successful in life he needed to be the Anti-George. When he did things against his nature, he found, that he actually got what he wanted and the success he craved. Do not hear me saying that Jesus is like George, and God forbid, that George is like Jesus. What I am saying is that for us to be who we desire to be in Christ, maybe we can rethink what we do and how we do it, and listen to our Master and Lord.
To set the stage, Jesus is at a banquet and sees people jockeying for positions of honor at the head table and nearby. Then he breaks into a story, that is a mirror for the very situation he is in. People scrambling, looking out for number one. Because, hey, if you do not toot your own horn, who will? (What the world teaches us anyway.) And Jesus gives a suggestion. Be happy that you are at the banquet. Head over to the corner at the back, and find that last seat in the room. Be content. And, if the host wants you to be honored, they will come and find you and you will be moved up to the head of the hall and placed in the seat of honor. But if you do it the other way around, put yourself amongst the elites, and someone more elite than you comes in you will find yourself humiliated and moved to the back of the class.
This seems simple, but it is oh so hard to do. We live in a society where people are famous for BEING FAMOUS. They have done nothing, they have accomplished nothing, they are celebrated for being celebrated. It is the embodiment of titillation. God help us. Our media is filled with the distracting and mollifying. When we were watching the Olympics happen the last two weeks, I showed my kids the best in the world at things. They had sacrificed and worked unbelievably hard to make the impossible real. Right before the Olympics came on though, a gossip show, celebrating the worst in people and in our society came on. The stark difference was shocking. Even in the Olympics, when someone chose to tell a stupid lie to get more attention, airtime, significant airtime, was devoted to that instead of what we were there to see. I can only picture Jesus shaking his head. We need to hear this story today more than ever.
If you ever wondered what Hollywood was worried about, no matter what people like to claim as the conservative or liberal causes they uphold, look at their biggest night of the year. The Academy Awards, the Oscars, is all about the glamour and the glitz, forget about the awards. There is a show just about people showing up. Grown adults are commenting on who is wearing who, and who is showing up with whom. If you ever thought about what the show is about, there are people whose job it is to fill seats. When a star gets up to give or receive an award, a professional seat filler comes in and looks the part. They were a tux or a fancy ball gown and take up space. It is all about appearances. Jesus says to fill the seats, but not with wanna-be celebrities. Jesus’ message is very different.
The message of the Gospel is a simple one, so simple that it takes most of our lives to try and live out. When I was asked during the ordination process by the Committee on Priesthood to sum up my understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, instead of my normal, long-winded responses, I said a word, a single word.
Then I waited. They looked surprised at the brevity of my answer for a moment, and then I was asked if I would like to unpack that at all. My response was, “If I say anything more than Grace or I take anything away from that I have cheapened and lessened the Gospel.” That gift of God’s unfailing, unquestioning, all-accepting love of us how we are and where we are is the good news that the world is hungry to hear. And in today’s reading, Jesus is showing us how to live lives of Grace, living out his radical, world-changing Gospel in how we treat others and how we treat ourselves. Put others before us, and allow others to put us before themselves. Grace is a two-way street. We both give and receive. However, it is not transactional, like this world teaches, do this for me and I’ll do that for you. Quid pro quo. Tit for tat. Jesus teaches us to break the cycle of transactional relationships, just like he did for us. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
He ends his first story with a line that is echoed in another parable in Matthew. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Matthew uses this when he has Jesus tell story of the flashy Pharisee praying in the Temple, and the wretched sinner who cannot even look up to heaven. Here we are given the same lesson, but it is not theoretical in the third person. It is directed to us. He is telling us, his disciples to behave this way. And the Great Reversal continues, the humble will be exalted, the last will be first.
But then Jesus moved on. He did not stop at those that merely attended the party, but he included those of us who throw the parties, too. He taught us to invite those who would not have been on anyone’s guest list. He invited us to be, well, like him. He reached out to us when we were yet sinners, and died for us, Paul reminds us in Romans. He wants us at his party, he wants us to celebrate with him forever.
When we come to his table today, that is one of the things I personally celebrate and applaud. Every time I come to his table I rejoice that even one such as I am invited, welcomed and loved by the host. I chose to become Episcopalian for that very reason, Christ says WHOSOEVER WILL come. Now we puts disclaimers, caveats and exceptions on that sometimes. God forgive us. But Christ does not put any ifs, ands or buts on his invitation, and encourages us to go, and do likewise. “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.”
In our choice of seating, and in our choice of guests, we have a decision, will we be like this world arguing and fighting over who is the best and who is a little better in the pecking order, or will we be like the one who took on himself the humble form of a servant so that we might see what Grace looks like in action.
In closing today, please know that I wrestle with what I have asked just like we all do. I get petty at times. I look out for number one at times. And daily Jesus calls and I try to answer. And hopefully, prayerfully, this ol’ heart of mine will become more and more like Christ’s one choice, one decision, one day at a time. Even the early church, many of whom saw Jesus in the flesh wrestled with this. In our Hebrews reading, the Preacher there discusses our common call and how hard it is.
“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.”
As true today as it was then. God help us in our following of you. Amen.