Proper 17C-1: Luke 14: 1, 7-14
Baptism of Harrison Graham Moquin
Again, a great day, and with Harrison’s baptism this morning--entry #10 in the register so far in 2016!--we conclude this series that has given our summer a distinctively “wet” character. Lots of splashing in the font! I think it has meant a lot to all of us, as we have every week or two had the opportunity to stand with parents and godparents and to witness their vows and to reaffirm our own. Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your savior? Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love? Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?
The baptismal vows this morning followed our reading from Luke 14, and perhaps we can find that juxtaposition helpful. Jesus and his disciples have come from the Galilee to the outskirts of Jerusalem. It’s not time yet for the dramatic entrance on Palm Sunday. Jesus is continuing the ministry he had begun in Nazareth and Capernaum, but now in a much more high-profile setting, where his teaching and his actions begin to draw crowds and so come to the attention of the authorities. They are trying to keep things quiet, trying to avoid disturbances that might bother the Romans.
Their strategy seems to be to discredit Jesus by showing him up as a not-ready-for-prime-time country preacher. But it turns out to be a little trickier than they thought it would be. This morning we continue the story that began in last Sunday’s reading. Jesus has been invited to a Sabbath dinner at the home of one of the most prominent religious leaders of Jerusalem to meet some of his colleagues. These were the tenured academics in the Temple Divinity School--and the host was something like the Chairman of the Theology Department. A big wheel. The invitation to Jesus of Nazareth—we might say, “Jesus of Stump Hollow, West Virginia”: --perhaps it had the outward form of hospitality, but there was clearly another agenda at work. They wanted to expose this so-called “messiah” as someone who couldn’t play in this league. But almost before they could sit down their plans are scrambled. As we heard last week, they are interrupted by noise outside on the street--people from the neighborhood gathering out front because they had heard that the famous healer and miracle worker Jesus was inside. One man has been brought forward who is suffering from what our translation calls “dropsy”--which my dictionary suggests might have been what we would call congestive heart failure. In any event, a serious medical condition. Jesus gets up, leaves the distinguished host and dinner guests, and goes out on the front porch to greet the crowd. He offers his blessing, and then specifically blesses and with a word and a touch heals the sick man when he is brought forward.
The distinguished theologians have followed Jesus outside and now are at a loss. They were hoping to discredit him, but now he’s the center of attention and the crowd is cheering. What to do now? The only response they can think of on the fly, and it turns out not to be a very good one, is to accuse him of violating the provisions of the Torah related to work on the Sabbath. But Jesus turns it back to them quickly, and you may remember this from last week, when he says, “give me a break!” That’s a paraphrase . . . . “Which of you, having a child who had fallen into a well, wouldn’t pull him out—even on a Sabbath?”
I try to picture this scene— the neighbors all standing around now, in wonder and joy, cheering, gasping in awe and amazement, at the healing of their friend, and these out of touch, elitist ivory tower types not celebrating with them but instead trying to parse some kind of obscure legalism to call the whole affair into question. Killjoys. Spoilsports. In our political vocabulary this moment would reflect what would be called “really bad optics.” Whatever the technical point of their objection, it just LOOKS really bad.
And Jesus doesn’t help them out as they are standing out on the porch with the neighbors all around. He goes on instead with a little speech--the two parables that we have in our reading for today. The first, the man who comes to the wedding reception and ostentatiously goes up to the head table—and who then is humiliated when the host has to ask him to move. Contrasting him with the man who comes in and takes the place nearest the door, with the catering staff and the children, who is approached by the host and escorted to a higher place. “He who exalts himself will be humbled,” Jesus says. Looking around at the Pharisees, and then at the crowd by the front door. “And he who humbles himself will be exalted.” And then the second parable. Luke says that Jesus even more explicitly directed this to his distinguished host. He looks right at him. When you throw your next party maybe don’t invite all your A-list, important friends. Those who remind you when you see them of what a swell person you are, too. But instead try this: invite the poor, the uneducated, the weak. Like these people, gathered in front of your house right now, for example. Each one of them people whom God loves. Even though their presence at your table won’t add a bit to your own status or prestige. A dinner party that won’t be included in the newspaper “high society” column. Guests who might make your colleagues at the office and friends at the country club roll their eyes. But that’s the point. You’ve read about this in the Scriptures, haven’t you? Scholars and teachers and religious leaders. You’ve read the Law and the Prophets . . . . Where does God tell us his heart is? The first end up going last, the last come first.
And so: the tables turned. An event that was designed to take Jesus down a few notches in the public eye has accomplished exactly the opposite. And this Sermon on the Front Porch still seems to have the power to rattle our cages. Nothing new under the sun. In a social and cultural and economic and political environment that seems to be all about us, all about my desires, my rights, my identity, my grievances—a world 24/7/365 all about “me.” Me First: The way we live now. And then on the day of Harrison’s baptism--here is Jesus out on the porch talking about another way. A way that actually this morning leads us up to the font. The way of the Cross, we would say. A way that is more about dying to that self, the old self, and rising to life again as something new, someone new—and how that dying and rising again that is in one sense invisible, but that at the same time is expressed so simply, so beautifully, as modesty, humility, obedience, restraint, kindness, generosity.
So interesting that of all the wonderful athletic moments of the recent Olympics, the scene that seems to have touched the hearts of the world more than any other has been not of some Gold Medal world-record victory, but of two young women running back in the pack in a middle distance semi-final race, tripping and falling, and then one helping the other up, and both of them not dropping out in defeat, but limping forward together, supporting one another, encouraging one another, painfully, but triumphantly, to the finish line. They later on said they didn’t really think any of this through. It just seemed the natural thing to do. But of course it is the most unnatural thing, and we would recognize that there must have been a lifetime of formation and preparation. It was actually a high spiritual moment. What we used to call “Christian virtues.” Standing back. Making space. Remembering what John the Baptist said once Jesus arrived to begin his ministry: “I must decrease, so that he may increase.” A way of life for us that begins at the font.
To pray again, this summer morning, as we prepare to share the Meal together: Grant, O Lord, that all who are baptized into the death of Jesus Christ your Son may live in the power of his resurrection and look for him to come again in glory; who lives and reigns now and for ever. Amen.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.