Wednesday, September 04, 2013
Sermon on Luke 14:7-14, for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, "Only One can be First"
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. In the Gospel reading, Luke 14, especially verses 7-14, Jesus teaches about some ordinary situations from life: things like social etiquette, seeking honor, or who we associate with. The same theme is in the Old Testament reading. It’s better to be invited up to a place of honor, than to seek it for yourself, and then be ashamed when it’s taken away from you. In the reading from Proverbs, this situation was in the king’s court. In Jesus’ parable, it’s a banquet. Where do we attempt to “establish a pecking order”? Where do we get wrapped up in “social positioning”, letting other people know who we are and who we associate with?
At our meals? Our parties? Our workplaces? Even in our churches? In school? Or in the entirely new environment of online social networks? What if we did an experiment, and asked all of you, to line up in order of importance, from the front of the church to the back? That’s right, the most important of you, come up front, the least important, go to the back. While hopefully none of us would be so bold-faced as to even participate, much less rush to the front—don’t we secretly do it anyhow, in our minds? And how would we even measure our own importance? On our physical strength or prowess? Our intelligence? Our wealth? Our social connections? Our jobs or titles? How would we sort ourselves out, from greatest to least? Who would we consider above or below us, if any? Who is simply invisible to us, that we don’t even notice?
As Christians, we should rightly be appalled by such thoughts. We know better. But I can bet on it, that your sinful nature is just as fallen as mine, and that we do nevertheless—even if only in our thoughts, create these sorts of rankings. Is it about who we need to rub elbows with to get ahead at work? In politics? Is it about not being caught dead talking to that kid in the hallways or lunchroom at school? “This is my best friend…and this is my best friend forever! But that person…they don’t even exist!” In all sorts of ordinary situations we rank and form cliques, we posture ourselves, we take pride in who we do or don’t associate with.
In Jesus’ time it was the banquets and feasts where this was most obviously took place, as people craved positions of honor. The disciples James and John, together with their mother, even pleaded for the highest places at Jesus’ left and right in the kingdom of heaven. A Pharisee prided himself in not being so low and sinful as a tax collector. Others scorned Jesus for healing a sick man, or accepting the anointing of a sinful women, or going to eat at the home of Zaccheus, the tax collector. James wrote about the favoritism his churches were showing to the rich, over the poor. It’s seemingly impossible to escape from this sinful activity of putting ourselves up and over others. Impossible because of our sinful nature that we carry around with us. It’s not just what somebody else does. Even if it’s just in our mind, we’re all at it in some way. We need to first examine our own hearts.
Jesus shows us how to abandon our pretensions, our opinions of self-importance, and go to the lowest place. Find that place, and occupy it with humility. If you’re to be honored, then let someone else, not you. If you’re having a banquet, a social event, don’t just invite friends, neighbors, relatives and rich neighbors who can repay you, lest they invite you in return and you be repaid. But invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just. Jesus’ advice turns all our normal behavior on its head, turns our worldly values on their heads, and shows us the way of the kingdom of God. He shows us, as one of my professors wrote: “In God’s world, putting other’s first is the only way to get along. To God alone belongs the glory of creating us, redeeming us, and raising us to new heights in Christ...He raises the lowly and puts down the proud” (Rev. David Scaer, sermon on Luke 14). It’s God’s job to repay, and to give honor.
You see, as long as we’re preoccupied with ourselves, our importance, our position relative to everyone else, we have no time for, or take no notice of the humble and needy. Those who suffer are invisible to us, if we’re obsessed with ourselves and our importance. But Jesus wants to clear all those sinful thoughts from our mind, and to help the poor and needy. And as quick as we can say those words, our sinful nature will jump to work, and find a way for us to parade our humility before others! “See how humble I am? Watch me help this person!” We look over our shoulders to find approving glances from others, and pats on the back, and our sinful nature has done a somersault to get our pride back into play.
And instead of helping others for the sake of their need, and to value and honor them as human beings, of worth and dignity, we make them mere objects of our pity. When Jesus said who we should invite, He intentionally named categories of people, the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind, who had no ability to repay. No social networking ties, no special graces or favors to offer in return. They’re not a means of satisfying our pride. Pity is a strange thing. It’s good to have pity on someone who suffers, or who is hopelessly caught in a situation that requires outside help, or when someone is bearing an injustice. We should take pity, and help. But pity can quickly be warped by our sinful nature, as a way to show others that “I, indeed I (!), am doing this good thing—don’t you see!” In doing so, we humiliate the person we are helping, and make fools of ourselves to show off our generosity or benevolence. By contrast, Christ calls us to serve others His way: as a servant, helping from beneath—even the lowest person, placing ourselves still lower—lifting them up by love and service.
We have to know that our sinful nature dies hard. There’s only one suitable fate for that old sinful nature, and it is the death of repentance. It’s to repeatedly, daily, let the hammer blows of the law nail our sinful nature to Christ’s cross, and by confessing our sin and pride, watch Jesus crucify and bury our sin. There at the cross and in the fire of our trials under the cross, we’re purified like silver before a fire, the dross, the sin, burning away. And Christ gives us purity of heart, not by our efforts, but by His pure love moving into our hearts, His Spirit pouring into us through baptismal waters. Filling us to overflowing, carrying away sin and impurity, that we might be cleansed for His service. And despite all our warped sinful tendencies toward pride, and our mixed motives for doing good, He works through our good works to help our neighbors who are in need. Christ redeems our acts of charity and Christian service, and uses them for good. When we become servants to the needy, Christ lifts up the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind, and seats them at His table. King David foreshadowed this in the Old Testament when he seated Mephibosheth, the tragically crippled son of his dear friend Jonathan, at the king’s dining table. He treated him as an honored equal, like his own beloved son.
Jesus wants us to be free of the presumption of all this social positioning, so that we can attend to the poor and needy, and not in a way that humiliates them by service from above, but values them by service from below. Jesus, who was not above putting on the towel to wash His disciples feet, shows us how to serve. But Jesus was not the impossible perfect example we could never follow—rather He was a servant also to us, for our sakes, turning His eyes to our suffering and need, and giving us that unexpected and undeserved invitation, to “come up here” and be seated at His banqueting table. He wasn’t preoccupied with any self-importance, any desire to position Himself above others, or to make friends by associating with the “in crowd.” His loving attention was turned entirely toward us sinners in our need. And no one is “invisible” to Him.
We all want a place at the heavenly banqueting table (or should), but it’s not a competition—as though there were VIP tickets that might sell out. There are ample places at the table, but we don’t come by self-invitation, and we certainly don’t get there by pushing others out of the way in our climb to the place of honor. We come at God’s invitation, as He welcomes us into His kingdom, and at His expense. As Pastor Roschke shared last week, the invitation is costly, but is paid in full, at Christ’s expense. It comes free of charge, and everyone gets an invitation. He calls us, He invites us by His Holy Spirit, and He determines the “seating arrangement”. It’s for Him to bestow honor, not us. Jesus does not “discriminate” by whom He’d rather rub elbows with, by social position, wealth, health, or state of mind. He looks instead for faith in Him, that He Himself plants in our hearts by His Word and Spirit.
It’s not a competition to get ahead of someone else—either in this life or the next. It’s not about putting ourselves first. Because there is only One who can be and forever is first—Jesus Christ—who made Himself last for our sake. And there is only One who deserves the highest place of honor above all other names. Jesus takes His place at the head of the heavenly banqueting table, not by exalting Himself, but instead becoming last of all and the lowliest servant of all mankind, humbling Himself to death, even death on a cross. And Christ, who is risen from the dead, now gives us a foretaste of that heavenly feast to come. “Jesus comes today with healing, knocking at my door, appealing, offering pardon, grace, and peace. He Himself makes preparation, and I hear His invitation: ‘Come and taste the blessed feast!’” (LSB 620:1) In His name, Amen.