September 2, 2007 XIV Pentecost (RCL Proper 17C) Heb. 13: 1-8, 15-16; Lk 14:1, 7-14
Perhaps you’ve heard the old story of the guy who has devoted his life to spiritual pursuits, seeking spiritual perfection, enlightenment. He’s told by his guru that the missing element for him is humility. And so he works on that: meditates, studies, practices many new disciplines. Then one day he announces: “at last, I have ‘achieved’ humility. Now I’m perfect!”
Anyway, we laugh: it’s so easy to point fingers at those puffed-up Pharisees, as perhaps the disciples are doing at the beginning of this morning’s gospel reading. But Jesus really does I think catch them, and us too, with what he says here. In any context it’s easy to dislike those who seem to think they are better than we are, holier and purer than we are, of a higher station—any of that, and the “resentment meter” begins to tick, no question. But for Jesus the whole thing kind of drips with irony. Which is how I've come to read this passage, anyway. “If you really want to get ahead, don’t be like these Pharisees. Nooo. They’re way too obvious. If you assume too much, you run the risk of being taken down a peg or two, which is embarrassing to say the least. Even if people don’t let on, you can be sure they’re mocking you behind your back. But get this: if you take a place at the table that you know is far lower than what you would deserve, odds are the host will make a point of escorting you to a seat nearer the head table—and just think what a wonderful and ego-inflating experience that will be! And likewise, be sure to practice a high level of philanthropy and charitable giving for the poor. They may not be able to do anything for you here and now: but think of it as a down-payment on a seat at the Heavenly Banquet Table. What fun it will be to receive that honor! Others will be green with envy, you can be sure--but what can they say? It’s all kind of a spiritual life version of “how to succeed in business.” The crafty art of self-promotion. Getting ahead by pretending you’re not really trying to get ahead. A department in that skill set of passive-aggressive behaviors that we've all been working on . . . . In which context I think of that phrase by the Buddhist teacher Trungpa, Rinpoche, who founded the Naropa Institute out in Boulder, Colorado, who spoke and wrote about the hard, hard process of what he called “cutting through spiritual materialism.” Whatever it is, in any case, that makes us think about the journey of this life as something that will lead us to our heavenly “reward.”
Way too easy to point fingers at the Pharisees, in any case. They're sitting ducks. Anybody who wears fancy ecclesiastical gear and sits in the best seat at the parish potluck. But if we think about what Jesus is saying here, perhaps just a hint of a tap on the shoulder about the tendency we all may have to hold others to a higher standard than we would hold for ourselves. First, look in a mirror. Tell me something new about the human condition.
We would all of us, I imagine, in a culture and society that thinks so much about rights and entitlement, that is powered so much by finger-pointing resentment when, and of course even in the church we find this in abundance, and now find the saying of Jesus about the man who will pick the mote out of another’s eye while ignoring the log in his own something of an uncomfortable word. A little bit more of the Pharisee in us, perhaps, than we care to admit, even to ourselves.
There is at least a slightly different emphasis in the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews. A call to holiness of life—to generosity, affection, respect, fidelity, modesty, self-control--but a somewhat different conclusion from the ironic conclusion at the end of the gospel lesson.
In Luke we hear, “you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous,” which I guess is another way of saying, if this is the game we want to play, we’ll get what’s coming to us. On the other hand, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews says simply: “Do not to neglect to do good . . . for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” The tables turn. At least here, a different way of thinking about it. In the movie business they say, “cut to the chase.” Get to the point. Keep the main thing, the main thing.
I know I’ve quoted my old teacher, the late Massey Shepherd. One of the students in class made a comment about “not wanting the worship service to become a performance.” And his reply, “But of course it is a performance. That’s not our problem. The problem is our remembering who the audience is. For whom we sing, for whose pleasure we gather in this lifting up of elaborate gesture and ornate language. Not for our fellow performers—the congregation, but for God.” That we would lift up our hands, our voices, in an offering of worship that is pleasing to him. It’s all performance, which is what Dr. Shepard’s point was. And not just what we do in church, but in the living of the elaborate dance and liturgy of our lives, from the moment we get up in the morning until we turn the lights out at night, and 24/7/365. The passage from Hebrews we could read again and again as our stage directions, our script, as it were. Generosity, affection, respect, fidelity, modesty, self-control. Boy: if we could learn this part. Play this role until it sunk down into our DNA. Why we would live faithfully: not because it’s always fun for us, because sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. But because we would please him.
One way of thinking about all this in the context of our lives together in the world, and in the Christian family today, would be, I think, to take a step or two in the direction of being a little easier on the other guy, cutting him or her a little more slack, giving the benefit of the doubt, trying to put the most positive construction on what he says or does rather than the most negative, and at the same time to be a little harder on ourselves. And I pause at the word “harder.” That not to mean to slip into a pattern of guilt and self-depreciation, but to lift up our eyes with a desire to grow in our lives, in our worship, in our conduct, ever more pleasing to the one who created us in love and who desires nothing more than that we would desire to live in him. To lift the bar a little higher—again not for others, but for ourselves. Some of the details about how we might begin to do that in the words from the Letter to the Hebrews. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg, the beginning of the story, in our hearts and minds as challenge and goal and invitation this morning, as we come to the altar to receive and to be lifted up into the Body of Christ.
“Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name.”
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.