July 28, 2013
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
MOVING ON UP
Luke 14:1, 7-14
I collect insults. I actually have a file, and whenever I hear an unusually good one, in it goes. I’m not real sure why I do this. I’m not one who enjoys putting other people down. Nor do I admire those who go through life building themselves up by putting other people down. I actually can’t stand the situation comedies on television that are little more than one insult after another, each one followed by canned laughter. The insults I save are almost all from the past. The art of the truly clever insult is, I would say, almost a lost art. Maybe I save insults out of respect for my ancestors. But I think it’s more that I enjoy seeing the high and mighty get put in their place.
That’s actually a big part of humor. It’s not funny to laugh at those who are down and out. That would be cruel. That would be offensive. It is funny to laugh at those who seem to be a little too big for their own britches. One of the early silent movies had a snooty waiter confidently carrying a full tray and then slipping on a banana peel. That was the big laugh line of the movie.
We don’t like it when mighty Oklahoma schedules a football game against the University of North Texas and beats them 79-10. We love it when Oklahoma makes it to the Fiesta Bowl, plays lowly BoiseState, and BoiseState wins. The people of the TreasureValley weren’t the only ones who loved it. There is something about an underdog beating the team that thinks it can’t be beat that thrills us all.
It’s in the Bible, too. Maybe because the Bible was written by underdogs. It was written by the Jews who spent most of their history being pushed around by great empires. When Mary is told by the angel that she is going to have a baby, she breaks into song. It’s called “The Magnificat”. She sings, “My soul magnifies the Lord, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. He has exalted those of low degree, and knocked down the mighty from their thrones” (Luke 1:46,48,52). That’s a put-down!
Here are a few others. These are from my insult file. Winston Churchill was one of the best. Lady Astor said to him, “If I were your wife, I would poison your tea.” Churchill responded, “If I were your husband, I would drink it.” Apparently he didn’t think much of this Lady Astor. On another occasion, Churchill had been drinking. She looked down at him and said, “Winston, you are drunk. You are very, very drunk.” He looked up at her and replied, “Madame, you are ugly. You are very, very ugly. Tomorrow I will be sober.”
Winston Churchill also got the best of George Bernard Shaw, who wrote him this letter: “I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play, one for you and one for a friend, if you have one.” Churchill responded: “I cannot possibly attend opening night. Could you be so kind as to send me tickets to the second night, if there is one.”
Groucho Marx attended one of those upper class parties. The kind with a very selective guest list. On his way out he said to the hostess: “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.”
Carl Sandburg was asked by a playwright to attend a play and offer his candid review. He slept through most of the play. The playwright said, “How could you sleep? You knew I wanted your opinion.” Sandburg said, “Sleep is an opinion.”
I mentioned that the truly clever insult is a dying art, but once in awhile we still hear a good one. I heard one on Friday from Charles Krauthammer. He was reviewing the week’s news and was asked to name the loser of the week. He said it was Kim Kardashian. I hadn’t even heard her name come up in the news last week so I was curious. He explained, “With the arrival of George Alexander Louis of Cambridge, the celebrity gossip press is now going to be turning its attention to someone who is more interesting and at least equally accomplished.”
There are more, but that’s plenty for now. One reason I suppose that we are drawn to insults and put-downs is that they help to clarify who is up and who is down. Who is higher and who is lower. There’s always this pecking order. Even at school. Especially at school. School is one of the most class-conscious societies anywhere. Everyone has a place, everyone knows their place, no one dares take on this caste system. It’s worse than India. And it pains me to say this, but even at church there is an unspoken but well understood sense of who belongs where on the pecking order. And Jesus condemns it.
Listen to our text. Jesus is the guest at a fancy dinner with an exclusive guest list. Maybe the kind of dinner Groucho Marx attended when he said, “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.” The host of the dinner was a ruler who was also a Pharisee. He was an important person. He was one people would look up to. People paid attention to him. He moved in the right circles. To get a dinner invitation from someone like this would be very flattering. It would mean you had finally arrived. You were one of the “who’s who” in that community.
Jesus was invited. Jesus had been recognized as an “up and comer”. He was rapidly becoming something of a celebrity. There were these healings he was doing. There were these crowds who were following him around and hanging on his every word. There were reports of miracles. The host and all his VIP friends had heard of Jesus. But they hadn’t met him, so this was their chance.
We can fill in a few details in our imagination. It was an elegant catered affair. It was outdoors, in the backyard, with a perfectly groomed lawn sloping gently down to the water’s edge. There was background music. The food was amazing. Everyone was having a fabulous time.
After the final course had been served, the host rose from the table, clinked his crystal glass a few times, and gave Jesus a most gracious introduction. And then he asked if Jesus might like to say a few words. That was a mistake.
Jesus slowly stood up and then he said something like this: “I’m really not used to such a fancy dinner, but I couldn’t help but notice that when it was time to eat, you all were very concerned about where you would sit. You all wanted to be next to the host. You couldn’t all be there, sitting on each others’ laps, but you sure tried. The way you maneuvered to get as a good seat as possible really was quite comical. So I want to tell you something. You can get away with that here, but don’t try that next time you go to a marriage feast. Because here’s what might happen. You might be sitting where you think you belong, in the seat of honor, and the host might have to tap you on the shoulder and say, ‘Excuse me, but you’re sitting in someone else’s seat. You need to go to the foot of the table.’ That would be embarrassing. So here’s what you do. You sit down at the foot of the table to begin with. You choose the seat no one else wants. Then, who knows, the host might tap you on the shoulder and say, ‘What are you doing clear down here? I want you to move up to a better seat.’ For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled and everyone who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The parables Jesus told fall into various categories. This one is in the category, “judgment parable”. Here is the clue: Jesus is talking about a marriage feast. The “marriage feast” is code for the Kingdom of God. Jesus will be the bridegroom. When the Kingdom comes, it will be like a great banquet, a great marriage feast.
Judgment parables like this one give us a glimpse into the end times. This one says, don’t count on what counts now counting then. Don’t count on what you think is important now being important then. All this jockeying for position, all this wanting to grab onto a place of privilege and honor and power, all this that matters to us so much now, is not going to matter at all then.
The only thing that matters in the Kingdom is humility. At that banquet, at that time, at that place, you’re going to want to be at the foot of the table. Because those who think they deserve a place of privilege don’t, and those think they don’t deserve a place of privilege are the ones who do.
There’s a lot we don’t know about this final banquet. Some people seem to know more than the Bible tells us. Some people think they have it all figured out about what it’s going to be like and who is going to be there and who is not going to be there.
A teacher told her class it was scientifically impossible for Jonah to survive in the belly of a whale for three days. A 12-year-old girl raised her hand and said, “I don’t know how it happened, but it’s in the Bible so I believe it. I’ll just have to wait until I get to heaven and then I’ll have Jonah explain it to me.” The teacher smiled and said, “What if Jonah didn’t go to heaven? What if he went to hell?” The girl said, “Then you’ll have to ask him.”
(That one didn’t come out of my insult file, by the way.)
There’s a lot we don’t know about heaven and about who will and will not be there. But here is one thing we do know. The humble will be there. “For everyone who humbles himself will be exalted and everyone who exalts himself will be humbled.”
There are other teachings of Jesus that say humbling yourself means thinking about other people. It means serving them. Another judgment parable Jesus told is the one about the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46). You might remember, it’s the one where the Lord says, “As you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.” It’s talking about feeding the hungry, giving a drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoner. And it’s a parable full of surprises. Everyone is surprised. Those who get rejected are surprised. They thought they were shoo-ins. They thought they had personally engraved reservations for the banquet table. And those who do get in are even more surprised. They had such humility they weren’t even thinking about getting into heaven. All they were thinking about was helping people in need.
Here’s a little factoid. We all know Jesus tells us to love our neighbor. He tells us that ten times in the four gospels. That means it’s pretty important, and it is. How many times do you suppose Jesus told us to humble ourselves? He told us that ten times. Humility is pretty important, too.
Robert Coles tells the story of the day he met Dorothy Day. These are both people with impressive accomplishments. Robert Coles is a child psychologist who taught at Harvard and has written a lot of books. Dorothy Day founded the Catholic Worker movement that to this day provides direct aid to the poor and the homeless and advocates on their behalf. But the day Robert Coles met Dorothy Day, he was a young man just getting started and she was already a legend.
He was building his resume on his way to becoming a somebody, and he figured a great resume enhancement would be to spend some time volunteering to help the poor. Especially with Dorothy Day. People would be duly impressed and it would help him gain some valuable social status.
So he arrived at the Catholic Worker headquarters. He asked to see Dorothy Day. He didn’t want to waste time with a lower level employee. He was going straight to the top. He was told that she was in the kitchen. So he went there. He recognized her. She was sitting at a table talking to someone. He could see that the man she was talking to was a man with some problems. He was clearly an addict of some kind. He was wearing clothes that he probably hadn’t changed out of in weeks. He was no doubt a homeless street person. And she was sitting at the table with him, listening intently to his every word.
We could put this in the context of that parable Jesus told. She was sitting at the place of least honor at the table. That’s where she chose to be.
She didn’t notice that Robert Coles had entered the room. She was giving her full attention to this street person. So he waited by the door for her to finish. After their conversation had ended, she stood up and that’s when she noticed Robert Coles. She said to him, “Do you want to speak to one of us?”
He was astounded. Dorothy Day was famous. This man with her was a nobody. He was the lowest of the low. He was the kind of person you would take great care to not make eye contact with on the street. And she said, “Do you want to speak to one of us?” He had never seen anything like this before. Humility that can identify with another person so completely as to remove all distinctions between them. It cut through all the layers of status and privilege that society sets up to separate us from one another. There were just two people, brother and sister. The sister concerned with the brother.
It changed his life. He said he learned more in that one moment than he learned in four years at Harvard. He saw in one moment what it means to humble yourself as our Lord did, “who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but humbled himself and took on the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:6-7).
Help us God to see people, all people, as your precious sons and daughters. As Jesus refused to bow before those who wielded great power and refused to lord it over those who had no power, help us to treat all people with equal respect. Help us to fight against that tendency we are all born with to treat certain people as if they were worth more than certain other people. Jesus came not to be served, but to serve, and we are called to be servants of the servant. There is no higher calling. May we be faithful. In Jesus’ name, Amen.