Jeremiah 2: 4-13 Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III
Luke 14: 1, 7-14 August 28, 2016
“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Prayer: God, please speak to us that we may speak in living echoes of your still speaking voice. Amen.
In the wake of the flurry of sporting events in the last month or so ranging from the Olympics, to Phillies baseball, to NFL preseason games, to more Phillies baseball, I couldn’t help but notice that there are, at times, lots of braggadocios behavior by some of the athletes. Is it just me? Or, have you noticed it, too? There’s the Usain Bolt “lightning bolt” pose he strikes after winning every race. There’s the excessive celebrations after a touchdown in NFL games, which I’m sure we’ll see more of in this year’s season which begins in less than two weeks. And, there’s the different kind of braggadocios, the arrogant kind shown to the world in the now infamous Ryan Lochte debacle following the Olympics.
The competitive and egocentric side of our human nature, I guess, influences such exalted behaviors. Athletes and athletic teams strive to be number 1, and if you get there, there’s a sense that you’ve earned the right to flaunt it! There’s nothing more satisfying than winning gold, or the Super Bowl or the World Series or the Stanley Cup, right? You are the best; on top of your game and on top of the world. You’re better than all your competitors, and you can show it!
The danger is, of course, obsessing on achieving such high results, right? Our culture obsesses exceptionalism, individually, and as teams, and even as a nation. We must be the best. We must be on top of the medal count. We must be better than everyone else! We’ve heard it said, ‘never, ever, settle for mediocrity. Never, ever give up.’ I can still hear my football coach saying to us, “If you aim low, expect low results. If you aim high, expect high results. So, strive to be the best. Give 110%” and other such clichésthat were meant to inspire us. And I get it. I enjoy, good, healthy competition, too.
But, I’m also a Christian. We all are. And as Christians, what makes sense culturally quite often doesn’t make sense theologically. I mean, maybe instead of striving to exalt ourselves, what is most significant is when we humble ourselves. That’s what Jesus taught, isn’t it?
To me, one of the most poignant moments in the Olympics was not when Michael Phelps won his 23rd gold medal, not when the “Final Five” women’s gymnastic team took gold in the team effort, but actually when a New Zealand woman runner Nikki Hamblin and the USA woman runner Abbey D’Agostino collided and tripped over each other in the 5000 meter run. Both fell. And, of course, both women’s chances for a medal fell, too. But instead of getting up and trying to catch up, the two women helped each other. Abbey first tried to help Nikki, but Abbey was in serious pain, and Nikki then went back to help her. They talked to each other, encouraging each other to finish the 5K run. They did finish, even in great pain. And, in the end, both received Olympic medals for Fair Play.
But, even more to the point, Abbey D’Agostino, raised in a Catholic family, said that “Although my actions were instinctual at that moment, the only way I can and have rationalized Nikki is that God prepared my heart to respond that way” (The Wired Word for August 28, 2016, personal email, retrieved August 25, 2016). Ow about that? When the two women helped each other, I think they put flesh on Jesus’ words, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
The end result of no medal is not what either woman wanted, nor was the result what the competitive culture would have wanted, but perhaps it is what God wanted. This is one of the spiritual truths I think Jesus is getting at when he tells his parable. The truth is that in the spiritual life, what God values often is not what we humans value, and vice-versa. Jesus teaches that to shoot low means to act with humility, in spite of its lowness. It means that the human relationships with God and with others are more important the any societal or cultural values of winning, or having power, or controlling others, etc. By shooting low and acting with humility, you’re actually aiming high, aspiring to live the way God wants you to live.
But, living the way God wants us to live can be tricky, at best. Because it means choosing to live by what God values and not what the world values. Jesus teaches this truth during a moment when he notices
people jostling for the seats of importance as they arrive for a Sabbath meal. Who should take the seat closest to the host? Are those seats for the hosts’ close relatives and friends? Or, who should sit next to or nearby the main speaker? Are those seats only for the wealthy? Are those seats for the leaders in the community? The mayor? The rabbi? An astute lawyer?
And more to the point, do you think of yourself as one who is wealthy enough, or important enough, or prominent enough to sit in those seats of importance?
In response to this human behavior influenced by accepted cultural norms, Jesus tells a parable that shows the accepted norms of God’s way to live. He says, “Imagine that you are invited to a wedding banquet…”
A version ofJesus’ parable lives in me. A lot of years ago, I officiated at a wedding in Reading. The reception was held at the Reading Country Club, a common place for receptions, and I had been there many times before. On this occasion, I arrived and looked for my name tag on the welcome table which would tell me what table I was sitting at. I looked and looked. No name tag. Must be some mistake. Always in the past, I’ve been assigned to sit at one of the tables up front, near the family members. Or, near the DJ, so I could say grace when called upon. But, nope. In short, I didn’t have a name tag anywhere. So, I asked the mother of the bride. “Oh!” she said. “I’m not sure.” Awkward! “Let me find out.” She disappeared for awhile. And, I’m standing there twiddling my thumbs! She came back, and I was sure she was going to say something like, “I’m so sorry for the mistake; you’re seated with us.” But no. She said, “You’re seated at the Helper’s Table way in the back with the DJ, the photographer, the wedding coordinator, and the head of the catering team. We didn’t make name tags for you guys.” OK. I gratefully ate my humble pie with the helpers. Perhaps, I should have started there first. You think? Shoot low to aim high?
Jesus’ punch line has a punch: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Jesus extends the lesson further by inviting the host of the Sabbath meal to go against the conventional norm. Reverse the thinking. Don’t worry about reciprocity. Instead of inviting everyone who can pay you back, a cultural norm, Invite everyone who can’t repay. Forremember, God, who has provided everything, including the land and its fruits and good things, including freedom from bondage. Remember God is the fountain of living water, so the Sabbath meal is for everyone, the banquet of life with God is for everyone.
Jesus isn’t merely reversing the roles for people to take. He is actually inviting new conventions, new ways of seeing how God wants our world to be put together. It isn’t supposed to be a world of haves and have-nots, of privileged and unprivileged, of advantaged and disadvantaged. It’s supposed to be a world where everyone has enough, where all are treated fairly.
In this new way of seeing, shooting low may mean acting justly for those who suffer from injustice and unfairness, even though that may be frowned upon by conventional human standards which are firmly entrenched in practices that favor the privileged. But, by doing so, you may be aiming high to God’s standards.
I saw a video about a half-black, half-white woman, who was in the grocery check out line with her sister-in-law, a black woman, in a suburban middle class neighborhood. The abbreviated story is that the half black woman looked white, and had only been in the grocery story a few times and she went through the line first, paid with a check, no problem. Her sister-in-law, a frequent visitor to the grocery store, went through next, and when she was ready to pay with her check, the cashier said that she would need two forms of ID. She paused. Well, OK. You pick your battles, she said. But, then the cashier pulls out the “bad check” book to see if the second woman’s Drivers License was listed. Now, the first woman, who was waiting for her sister, went back and confronted the cashier and asked why she doing this. It was standard policy, the cashier said, to ask for ID from people they didn’t know. The woman said, “No, it’s not because you didn’t do that to me. “Well, I know you.” “No you don’t. My sister has been in here for years; I’ve been here three months.” The manager was called, “Is there a problem here?” all was explained and things were sorted out. But, here’s the thing… the white looking woman knew that she walked through the world differently than her black sister-in-law, and the white looking woman used the opportunity to educate and make right a situation that was unfair and wrong, even though confrontational (http://www.africanamerica.org/topic/joy-deguy-a-trip-to-the-grocery-store---how-to-use-your-white-privilege, retrieved august 27, 2016). She said, “ That’s what we can do each and every day.”
That’s what we can do, too. Help educate and make right an unfair and a wrong. I encourage us to see a different way God wants us to put together our world—where humility opens the door to God’s ways, where our actions, while possibly unpopular by the world’s standards, aim us toward the high standards of God’s world.
After all, don’t we pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven?” May it be so. Amen.