Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Year C Proper 18 2019 9/11 and the Nature of God

Year C Proper 18 WEDNESDAY, 11 September 2019
 St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“9/11 and the Nature of God”

Collect: Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Philippians 2:1-11
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.
Matthew 2: 1-12 (Read but not used)

Please forgive the adult language and please read to the very end. This was some of the best theology that I saw right after the attacks of that day...
[Read an edited version of The Onion from 9/26/200]
https://www.theonion.com/god-angrily-clarifies-dont-kill-rule-1819566178

That was satire, and like good satire it hits really close to home. I think it was one of the best commentaries on those horrific events. In the hymn we read from Philippians we have an early example of how Jesus was seen by the early church, his humanity, his humility, his divinity. We see an example of what loving God is all about.

It is such a stark contrast to the picture that is painted by the anniversary we remember today. That day 18 years ago when people decided to praise God by taking lives. That day when innocents were slaughtered in the name of God. For 2,000 years we have had an alternative set out there for us to imagine, enabling us to picture what God looks like, what the nature of God is like through Jesus. This is not hyperbole. This is not metaphor. This is not analogy. This is the very nature of God, and that sets out for us the underlying nature of the Universe.

When I see fellow Christians, or people who say they are Christians, arguing and fighting and seeking power and being afraid, I look to this hymn of praise to juxtapose Not The Way Things Ought To Be, but rather, THE WAY THINGS ARE. We just have not woken up to that yet.

This week Donald Trump tweeted the name of a pastor instead of a journalist he had decided to belittle. The pastor responded in sympathy and love, extending grace despite the threats and nasty messages he had inadvertently received through the error. That is what I am talking about.

When I hear take Jesus name and tie it to all kinds of things, I have to remember that  that is not what Jesus is about. In fact he warned us that all kinds of things would be done in his name, and that we were not to worry. We just need to take on the idea, the image portrayed here. Even on this day when we remember the almost 3,000 killed on 9/11, when we take on the form of the one whose name we cherish, what the world sees as weakness is our strength. Please stand:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Amen

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Chapel at St. Catherine's School September 2019

Chapel Service, 9 (High School) and 10 (Middle School) September, 2019
8 am services
St. Catherine’s School, Richmond VA

Matthew 6:25-34
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

Who here worries? [Wait] If you are not raising your hand, your a telling a fib, and you shouldn’t fib in Chapel. [Smile]

Whenever we have an angel or God show up in the Bible, most of the time they start with the phrase, “Fear Not.” In fact, I have read that it is used in the Bible 365 times, one for every day of the year. Now, I have not done the homework to check that out, but it is a good quote. We’ll go with it.

Some say, to err is human. But I think it is even more honest to think, that to worry is human. We worry because we have these wonderful brains. And our brains think in stories. We are the story telling creature. And when we worry it is our brains telling us a story about what could go wrong, a negative story.

“Worry is the Misuse of Imagination.”

Now think about it. If worry is the negative story we tell ourselves, what if we did the opposite? And every time we started to tell ourselves what could go wrong, instead we told ourselves what could go right. We imagine the positive. We visualize things going well. And then we can ask ourselves, what can I do to make things go well? And then we can do those things, and that positive visualization can come true!

So when we do not do the things that we need to do to make the good things happen, worry comes back…

“Worry is the emotional response to not being prepared.” 

So how do we not have that feeling? [Wait] We need to…
BE PREPARED! That’s right. We need to do what needs to be done.

A story is told about a college professor who was trying to teach the lesson of getting the big things done, then minor things, then filling in the other stuff that life throws us. So he got a big glass jar, a pail of rocks, a pail of sand, and a pail of water. And he asked, “Do you think this will all fit in the glass jar?” Not one student did. And he said, “Not if we just pour it all in.” So he carefully placed in all the rocks. Then he carefully poured in some of the sand, shook the jar to fill in the cracks, poured some more, shook, until all the sand was in. And then he asked, “Is it full?” Now the students were catching on. And he poured the water in filling the tiny spaces between the sand, which was between the rocks, all in the glass jar.

When I plan out my days, I have to do it like the professor. What are the things that I HAVE TO DO? Or the things that CANNOT BE MOVED? I have to put those in first. Then I can fill in the rest of my day with things I would like to do, or could get done, or I will find fun and energizing. And then I pour in the things that life throws at me, phone calls, emails, Facebook, whatever. But the rocks have to be first. When I do that I do not have to worry. I have taken care of my responsibilities.

And, “Worry is not your Responsibility.” 

Responsibility means that you have the ability to Respond. There are things that you can do, and probably should. But there are things that you cannot do, should not do, or are beyond your control. THEY ARE NOT YOUR RESPONSIBILITY! You can only do the things you can.

When I played tuba at the University of Richmond, my music professor had me playing some really hard parts. I got overwhelmed! I looked at the whole song, and thought, “I cannot play this!” But he said, look at one measure. “Can you play that?” Most I could, but some were really hard with hard rhythms. He said, then do not look at the measure, look at one beat. “Can you play that?” Yes, I could. He said, “When you are feeling overwhelmed and you have too much to handle, break it down into the smallest part you can until you can do it. Conquer that, then do the next thing, and so on, and so on, and so on.” I have taken that lessen with me the rest of my life.

Whenever I have a challenge, and it is my responsibility, I break it down into small manageable parts. And I do it one part at a time. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!

“Worry is letting my emotion, my fear, into the Driver’s Seat.” 

In one of my favorite books, there is a phrase that is repeated. “Fear is the Mind Killer.” What makes us worry is our mind. But when we let worry drive the car, our brain shuts down. Fear kills the mind. When I choose to recognize that there is fear, but I do not let it take charge, I can still think, act, and respond. I get to stay in charge, and the fear just hangs out until I can deal with that. That is what bravery is, recognizing the fear, not letting it rule the day, and doing what has to be done.

In closing, Crises do happen. Bad things do happen. Remember Jesus said, “Today has enough troubles for today.” Troubles do come along, but when they do I can do these things:
I can be in the present, not worrying about the future and what MIGHT happen, but I can do what I can right NOW. And that is what I focus on.
I do what I can. That is my responsibility, nothing more, and nothing less.
I respond as I can.
And then I let the rest go. It is not my responsibility.

So as school gets started, you do not have to worry. Do what you can. Be present in the moment. Let the rest go.

And one more thing, you do not have to worry, I am done. Thank you!

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Year C Proper 18 2019 First Place

Year C Proper 18, 8 September 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“First Place”

Collect: Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Jeremiah 18:1-11
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: "Come, go down to the potter's house, and there I will let you hear my words." So I went down to the potter's house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter's hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.

Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.

Luke 14:25-33
Now large crowds were traveling with Jesus; and he turned and said to them, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, `This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.' Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions."

Having two children in the Youth Group, I can attest: Growing Pains are real. They are fascinating to watch, just not up close. And the emphasis is on Pains if you have to go through them, and even more if you have to grow through them. God bless’em both.

Growing pains are never easy, nor are they desired. But Growing Pains are part of life. Life is Growth, so Life is Change, and Change is Hard. So, I guess I am saying Life is Hard.

Now many of us avoid Change with all that is in us, but some of us embrace Change and run to that which is different. Temperaments are what they are. But even for those of us who run to embrace Change, we do have to change our ways. Unlearning, relearning is a struggle, even if it is something we want. Wanted Change beats unwanted, but it is never easy.

God bless little league coaches, the ones who have to show kids how to hold a bat, how to catch a ball, how to the basic tasks, because if not done right on the front end of things, the back end corrections are longer, harder, and more painful. Getting it right the first time is SO important.

In the Jeremiah reading for the day, we have this beautiful metaphor of the Potter and the Clay. The Potter is turning a pot and sees that something is wrong. He stops, undoes the work that has been done, and reshapes and reforms the pot before the clay hardens and is harder to work, or at worst must be thrown out and destroyed. The Potter does not want that for the Pot, and God most certainly does not want that for us. Let’s do it right the first time, let’s do it right now. Quoting: “Can I not do with you, O [people of God], just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in my hand…”

God wants us shaped for the work we are to be about, and as we put God first in our lives, so do we. One of the beauties of the Episcopal approach to the faith is that we commit our Children to God in baptism, and trust that we “turn them right” just like clay on the Potter’s Wheel. But we also have a time of Confirmation, where we harden and affirm with them the work that begin in their younger days. We confirm the work of God in them, and we help solidify it in them before we send them out to face the world. The world will put them through the fire soon enough. They will be hardened soon enough. That is why there is hardly any more important work of the Church as we do in our Formation work in Sunday School, Youth Groups, and VBS. We are not teaching a class, we are forming and possibly reshaping lives! And in doing that what we do echoes in eternity!

So we come to the hard teaching of Jesus. We have to remember context, LARGE CROWDS were following him, many of them wanting to overthrow the powers that be, political and religious. And before they went any further, he wanted to be VERY clear. He set out that following him meant Change, wholesale, complete, and as we have discussed. Change is Hard.
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
Now we hear the harsh words. Hate family. Hate life. Take up your instrument of death. They are harsh words. Now in the semantics of the day, you love and hate. There is black and white. Subtlety and nuance where not what he was going for. In my youth I took this too literally. I took this in how we hear it today. Now Jesus obviously loved his family. His brother was a disciple. In his last moments, he asked the disciple that he loved (probably St. John) to look after his mom. So Jesus loved his family, and he would not demand something from us he did not practice. So what gives.

He is saying in STARK language what he says in different places in other ways. “Seek first the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness.” That is exactly what he is saying with the ‘hate everything other than being my disciple.’ It has to come first. With that everything else flourishes and blooms.

Think of it this way. When you have to care for someone in a medical crisis, there is an order of things. Is there an immediate danger? Is this place hazardous? Is there circulation? Is the Airway open? Can they breathe? Then you worry about bleeding, broken bones, and anything else. If you have a bear chomping on their arm, checking their breathing is going to be no good. That is what Jesus is saying to us.

What is First Place in your life? What gets the blue ribbon in your life? What goes on the calendar first? What gets the first check of the week? What comes to mind when you first get out of bed? Are you thanking God, or taking God’s name in vain for having to get up?

So that he is clear to the large crowds crying out his name, he makes economic and military metaphors. A man building a tower. A king going out to war. To both, he is clear. Count the costs. Know up front the price you will have to pay. And that is what he is telling his followers.
“So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
As we just moved, and we are still sorting through boxes and removing the extraneous, the unneeded, and the unwanted. Author Chuck Palahniuk in his dark novel Fight Club put it this way: “The things you own end up owning you. It's only after you lose everything that you're free to do anything.” Jesus did not want his followers encumbered by things, distractions, unhealthy ties. Everything else is supposed to come second place. Everything else needs to be second place.

I have to shake my head when I see the bumper sticker, “God is my Co-Pilot.” If God is your Co-Pilot, you are in the wrong seat.

The radical nature of the extent of what God expects of us is shown in our epistle reading. We read a whole book of the Bible this morning. And it seems so straight forward, but it is easy to miss how RADICAL, how POLITICAL the epistle reading is. Our commitment to Christ, as our Savior, our Master, our Lord comes clear when Paul demands of Philemon to FORGIVE and FREE his slave Onesimus. He could order him to do so, for what he has given to him, but Paul chooses a different route, in love he requests obedience. If it is not done in love, it is not of Christ. It is out of obligation and that invites resentment to slip in. Oh how the Devil loves resentment!

And what is the ask? A runaway slave, Onesimus, is being sent home to be free and to be welcomed as a brother. Now, in the church which was probably the one in Colossae, it met in Philemon’s house. [Onesimus and Archippus are both mentioned in Colossians.] If as a fellow Christian, Onesimus was welcome in the Church, it would have been one thing. But for Philemon, the scandal of this action would have had repercussions.

Paul is asking of him to put aside what was legally and culturally his right to do. He was being asked to entirely forget and let go what is the expectation, the norm, and the law. He is asked not only to forgive him personally, but to forego the money that he paid to buy Onesimus now that Onesimus is a brother in Christ. And think of the response from other slaveholders. He is setting a dangerous precedent for the status quo.

We do not know what Philemon chose. I assume, and it is an assumption, that it is included in Scripture and remembered fondly because Philemon did as was asked. We do not know. We never will. But that begs the question of us? When you are asked to do the hard thing, the impossible thing, what do you do?

St. Francis said, “Start by doing what is necessary, then do what’s possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” May it be so.

Putting Christ first has implications:

  • In our personal relationships (hate your father, mother, sister, brother), 
  • In our life and livelihood (forgive your runaway slave)
  • In our social life (facing the scorn of not doing the expected to Onesimus)
  • Taking up our Cross and following him, dying to self so that we can be fully alive.

As we look to the year ahead, we have so much where we are being asked to give it up to God, and trust that in our letting go, God will more than provide. May we do so with Faith and Joy. Amen


Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Year C Proper 17 WED 2019 When I Shout Barabbas

Year C Proper 17 WEDNESDAY, 4 September 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“When I Shout Barabbas...”

Collect: Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.

Mark 15:1-11
As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He answered him, “You say so.” Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, “Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.” But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.

Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. Then he answered them, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead.

When I shout Barabbas, and I have to admit sometimes I do, when I shout Barabbas I have made a choice beyond what I know to be right to choose what I think might be better, at least for me. When I shout Barabbas, I overlook the obvious sins and failures of one choice for political expediency or power. When I shout Barabbas, I sell my soul willingly, knowingly, and heartbreakingly. Heartbreaking to myself and to God.

On Sunday I spoke of my favorite novel, and I have pretty much decided that that one will be the next in the stack. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo tells the story of a man, Jean Valjean who was convicted and imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving family. Strong beyond belief already because of his massive size, and strengthened by hard labor, he is a force to be reckoned with. He attempts to escape, and gets years added to his sentence. When finally set free after 19 long years he has no hope, no prospects, an eternal convict his future appears to be a prison as much as the one he just left. Until, that is, he stays with one of my favorite characters in literature, Monseigneur Charles-Francois-Bienvenu, Bishop of Digne.  Minor though he may be in the epic novel, he stepped in and granted Grace when it was needed, and in doing so set off the chain of events that became the rest of the story.

Bishop Bienvenu invited him into his home, and seated him at his table, and served him with silver that the bishop had inherited from his aunt.  Bishop Bienvenu was known for living simply, and giving most of what he had to the poor.  One inherited gift was his only thing of value in his home.

Late in the night, in the wee hours, Jean Valjean who had learned in prison to take care only for himself steals the silver service and runs away.  Police see him running out of the city, and stop and search him finding the silver in his bag.  Valjean lies, saying the silver service was a gift. Not believing him, they drag him back the Bishop Bienvenu and confront him there, repeating Jean Valjean’s story that the silver was a “gift” from an old priest.  The bishop says that Jean Valjean was right.  They were a gift, but that there was an error, Jean Valjean had forgotten the most expensive part of the service, the large silver candlesticks on the mantle, and the Bishop hands them to Valjean.  The gendarmes, the police, are surprised and the Bishop thanks them and sends them on their way.

I now quote from the book, starting with the Bishop speaking:
‘Do not forget, do not ever forget, that you have promised me to use the money to make yourself an honest man.’Valjean, who did not recall having made any promise, was silent.  The bishop had spoken the words slowly and deliberately.  He concluded with a solemn emphasis:‘Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to what is evil but to what is good.  I have bought your soul to save it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.’ 
Each and every one of us has had our souls bought by the ultimate price, the most costly gift in all eternity. And those purchased souls have been given over into the hands of a loving God. But so often, when we cry out Barabbas, we snatch our souls back forgetting and foregoing what a wonderful gift we have been given.

In the story, Jean Valjean did much the same thing. A few miles outside of town a boy has a big shiny coin he had earned, and is walking along and flipping it up in the air. Valjean is sitting under a tree in the heat of the day, contemplating what it was that has just been done for him. The boy misses the coin coming down, and it rolls across the road to where Valjean is sitting. He sees the boy. He sees the coin. He takes his massive foot, strengthened by the decades of hard labor, and places it squarely on top of the coin. The boy laughs, thinking it is a joke, then pleads, cries, and begs. Finally, he pushes and shoves and screams. Jean Valjean’s heart, conditioned only to look out for himself, is not moved. And broken, the boy moves on in tears. After a time, Valjean comes to his senses, and figures out that he has already broken his promise to the Bishop. He runs, trying to find the boy and return the coin, but the boy is gone.

And then, at that point in the story, Jean Valjean’s heart of stone cracks, and he is reborn. Echoing in the foothills that day, he may have heard the echoes of “Barabbas, Barabbas, Give Us Barabbas!” But even here, when the words are still dangling in the air having come off our lips, Grace is still a possibility. Jean Valjean took the silver set and candlesticks of the Bishop, and the coin of the boy, and made good. He became a factory owner employing many in a small town, and even became mayor out of the respect people gave him. As the Bishop said, he had bought his soul for God.

When we are the redeemed, our souls bought and paid for with so dear a price, and when we are the mob shouting Barabbas (as we too often are), Grace abounds and calls us home. Even with the word Barabbas hanging from our lips, let the words that echo not be “Barabbas!” but let them be Christ’s: “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” Thanks be to God! Amen

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Year C Proper 17 2019 Banquet Attitudes

Year C Proper 17, 1 September 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Banquet Attitudes”

Collect: Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
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.

Luke 14:1, 7-14
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.
When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. "When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, `Give this person your place,' and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."
He said also to the one who had invited him, "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."

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. Jesus wants us to go against what may come naturally, and approach life how he did, humbling himself and loving all.

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.” And, “Look out for Number One.” 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.

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 numero uno. Because, hey, if you do not toot your own horn, who will? (That’s 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.

When Stephanie and I were moving away from the faith tradition we had both grown up in, we went to a conference in Seattle. When I walked into the room I was blown away. The words, “I have found my tribe!” actually came out of my mouth. There were people there trying to wrestle with their faith and with their culture. They wanted to engage and impact the time we find ourselves in with the eternal Gospel.

Throughout the conference there was an older man wandering around, who was friendly and engaged, but obviously not the intended audience, being about 25 years older. He was smiling and open, I noticed him because he was so enthusiastic in his observing. On the final day of the conference I found out who this little man in the brown sweatshirt hoodie was, Father Richard Rohr. I mentioned him in last week’s sermon because he is the author of our book, Falling Upward, that we are reading for Shrine Mont. I had no idea who he was other than the funny older man in the hoodie. I knew who Richard Rohr was, I just did not know who this man was. I will say more on the retreat, but it was fascinating to see and get to know him as a person as opposed to his minor celebrity status as an author of religious books.

But what his anonymity afforded me at the conference was EXACTLY what Jeus is asking us to do. Treat everyone the same. Ignore differences. 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. I saw an article the other day purporting to inform the reader “How to Become a Cultural Influencer.” And I have heard it discussed as the Cultural Influencer Industry. An INDUSTRY supposedly on how to make money by being not doing, creating, making, or leading. I can only picture Jesus shaking his head. We need to hear these stories today more than ever.

If you ever wondered what Hollywood was worried about, look at their biggest night of their year. The Academy Awards, the Oscars, is all about the glamour and the glitz, forget about the awards. There is a pre-award show show just about people showing up for the big show. 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 really about, know this: there are people whose job it is to fill seats. When a star gets up to give or receive an award, go to the restroom, whatever, a professional seat filler comes in and looks the part. They wear 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.

Grace.

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. The teaching on going to and holding a banquet begins with the inner work, the intentions. That is where the real struggle is. Inside each and every one of us.

He ends his first story here in Luke’s Gospel 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.

My favorite novel’s central theme is learning to live by and with Grace. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo tells the story of Jean Valjean, a man imprisoned for stealing bread for his starving family. He receives judgment and scorn, but then in a moment of Grace he is transformed, and the novel follows him the rest of his days as he learns to give and eventually receive Grace. So often those of us to preach and share Grace are far too often the least willing to receive it. That is that two-way street. We all need Grace. We all need to learn to give it. 

Jesus did not want us to EXPECT it, or DEMAND it. It is no longer Grace then. Sit at the bottom, and if you get moved up, good for you! But 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 of all of us. 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.