So… the blog has been pretty quiet this summer. As in … silent. I haven’t posted a single thought or poem since early May. I don’t flatter myself that there has been a whole host of people checking their blog feeds and panting for fresh words from me, but in case you were wondering I didn’t actually fall off the face of the earth, I just got swallowed up by CPE.
CPE, more completely known as Clinical Pastoral Education, is one element of the training process that many religious denominations include in the path to ordination. It involves serving as a chaplain in a relatively intense primary care setting (in my case, serving as a hospital chaplain at a level 1 trauma center), and combining that service with a lot of self-analysis/group reflection time that most closely resembles an emotional pressure-cooker. In other words, you really can’t explain CPE; you just have to live it to understand.
But this doesn’t mean I wasn’t writing this summer. I just wasn’t writing blogs. I wrote some things for myself, some things that I may share eventually, and a whole lot of sermons.
And the sermon I had the privilege to preach today, at my wonderful home church, seems like a good way to re-open the blog. For one thing, because it was the sermon I needed after my summer, and for another because I suspect it might be a sermon some other people need to.
Worth Vs. Status
The second to last verse of our gospel* today reads like this: “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”
I promise I did not ask to preach this Sunday just because of this verse, but this is seriously my kind of verse, right? Anti-poverty advocacy has been my life’s work for the last decade and a half, which puts this passage right in the middle of my ethical sweet spot.
Much as I would love to preach a sermon that focuses on the call to “help the poor,” however, I can’t.
For one thing, I don’t think that’s the sermon this congregation really needs. This church is a community that already takes seriously God’s call to respond to the needs of the poor and outcast, and while that is something to be celebrated, if all this text does is congratulate us for our good deeds, then it’s not really the gospel. The gospel is meant to transform us – to challenge our formulas for living a good life and to pull us instead into the amazing grace that God offers us through Christ Jesus.
Plus, when I started looking for that transformation in this text, I realized that the story it tells is much deeper and more fundamental than instructions on how we should act. The gospel in this story – both the challenge and the grace – lies in the contrast between status and worth.
You see the context of this story is ALL about status.
Jesus is a guest at a party in the home of a Pharisee (otherwise known as a rule-abiding member of the religious upper class).
Jesus and a number of other guests are all gathered together for a meal, which brings in a whole bunch of rules related to status.
The place you sit at the table tells how important you are,
and the fact that the guests were invited in the first place is a sign that they were considered to be in the same social strata as the host,
and it also creates an obligation on the guests to reaffirm the host’s status by inviting him to one of their parties.
Except Jesus, of course.
He was an itinerant preacher, so he clearly couldn’t return the host’s invitation.
He was there for another reason – but that reason was still all about status. The story tells us that the Pharisees were all watching Jesus closely, and we can be pretty sure that wasn’t because thought he was so cool.
Rather, in this high stakes context with so many rules, they were trying to catch Jesus breaking the rules. By doing so, they could knock down some of the authority (some of the status) that the unruly masses have been giving this upstart and reassert their own.
This is the context where Jesus tells his two parables.
The first one is frankly confusing because it doesn’t seem to challenge the whole status system at all. It’s just a bit of cagey advice about not risking your honor by claiming importance, but instead putting on a show of false humility so as to maybe coerce a nice dose of public recognition.
This seems quite out of character for Jesus, unless we consider that what Jesus is really doing is drawing a contrast – A contrast between the world of rules, and strategies, and scrambling after status, and the way God operates.
You see, parables always tell us something about “The Kingdom”, which is a theological way of saying “the way God interacts with God’s people.”
And when we read these two parables together we see that they form a contrast between the Pharisee’s way, and God’s way.
In the second parable, Jesus tells the host that he should have abandoned the rules of scheming, status-seeking society and instead should have invited guests to his banquet who could never repay the favor,
because the repayment will then come not from the guests, but from God …at the resurrection.
That reference to the resurrection is a clue that this parable is the one that teaches us about the Kingdom of God, in contrast to the first parable.
The first parable painted a picture of competitiveness –
of scheming to come out on top and to be set apart as special
The second parable, in contrast, paints a picture of equality –
Of everyone sitting down at the same table, regardless of social position, and enjoying the same meal as an expression of God’s resurrection kingdom.
The details of these stories are not familiar to our 21st century American context – but the contrast between status and worth could not be more relevant.
Every day we are bombarded by messages about status.
For us, maybe it is at work that status is determined by where we sit – whether our office has a window, or is even an office at all;
Or we go to school and we can’t just sit at any cafeteria table, because there are unwritten rules about who can sit where, and there are consequences for our reputations if we break those rules;
Or we turn on the TV and we see commercials that tell us people will judge us by the cars we drive, or the clothes we wear, or the color or our American Express card;
Or even when we fast-forward through the commercials we have endless shows where the focus is on out-surviving, or out-performing, or out-scheming, or out-talenting everyone else to win the big prize.
Or we look in the mirror, and we can’t help but compare ourselves to every impossibly beautiful or hard-muscled, air-brushed magazine picture that has ever told us we are less-than.
The markers of status may be very different for us, but the world of the Pharisees is not really that different than ours, is it?
It’s still about ranking and competition – judging better and worse, higher and lower- and any middle schooler, or pinterest addict can tell you how hard we all try to win that game.
And because of that our world is so incredibly insecure. When everywhere we look we are surrounded by reminders that we are being judged, that we have to win or we will be losers, that we have to be better than others to prove that we matter… Even being at the top can be terrifying – because what if we fall?
Our standard of living is unparalleled in history, and yet we are plagued by depression, and anxiety, and self-injuring behavior whether that be cutting, or substance-abuse, or workaholism.
It’s exhausting to be constantly playing the status game, because underneath all the ways the game shows up in our individual lives, they are all based on the same lie.
The lie that our status defines our worth.
And that’s why our text today is the desperately needed gospel – for Living Waters, and for every child, woman, and man who is bombarded every day with the rules of the status game.
Because Jesus describes the insecurity, and dishonesty, and shallowness of that game, and then he describes the opposite.
He describes a table where all are welcome NOT because of who they are and what they bring to the table, but because God calls them worthy.
God calls us worthy.
By invoking the resurrection, Jesus is talking about worth. A worth that is absolute. There is no more or less worthy in the kingdom. The same perfect gift of self-sacrificial love on the cross is what Jesus offers to each one of us. And that source of worth – the worth proclaimed in our baptism which echoes the resurrection – invalidates the status game.
Jesus was showing the Pharisees, and Us, that the entire framework of better and worse, higher and lower is absolutely irrelevant to God’s way of acting.
And so, it should be to ours, as God’s resurrection people.
Worth – not status.
- Worth that sees all bodies as valuable, regardless of their weight, or illness, or disability, or age, or color.
- Worth that sees all workers as valuable, regardless of their level of responsibility, or education, or remuneration.
- Worth that sees all lives as valuable, regardless of their country of origin, or religious practices, or past crimes.
- Worth that does not ever allow us to see ourselves (or others) as better than, or worse than.
It is a serious challenge because it calls us to genuinely let go of our desire to prove ourselves – whether that be proving we are better than others, or just proving our own value to ourselves by reaching some idealized goal.
We share what we have and we invite everyone to the table because the worth that ALL of us have flows equally from the God who made the table for us, without reservation and without limit.
And this is where we pull in that beautiful image from Hebrews** of being “held together by love.”
God’s table is about rejecting status, and competition, and fear, and instead sharing in the community of love. The community that is generated within the love of the Triune God and into which we are all invited to enter, not because we have earned it, but because God has called us worthy. God has called you worthy.
When we gather at the table in a few minutes, we are all there by God’s grace. We did not earn it and we are welcome there whether or not we are coveting after status in our hearts. And I, for one, am thankful for that, because I am preaching this sermon to myself.
But when we are there, I encourage us each to take that bread and wine as an invitation to know our own worth, and the worth of every other person whom God calls worthy – no matter what you or I might think of them – We are welcome at God’s table because God has called us worthy.
* Gospel text: Luke 14:1, 7-14: On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
** Second Reading: Hebrews 13:1 : “Stay on good terms with each other, held together by love.”