God of new beginnings, meet us where we are on our journey, imperfect as we are, and use us in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The story is told of Booker T. Washington, the renowned black educator and president of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Shortly after he became president, he was walking through a wealthy section of town when he was stopped by a white woman. Not knowing who he was, she asked if he would like to earn a few dollars by chopping wood for her.
Because he had no pressing business at the moment, Professor Washington smiled, rolled up his sleeves and began chopping the wood. When he had finished he brought the wood inside and stacked it by the fireplace. The woman's young daughter recognized him and later told her mother who he was.
The next morning, the woman when to Mr. Washington's office and apologized profusely for asking him to chop her wood.
"It's perfectly alright, Madam," he said. "Occasionally I enjoy some manual labor. Besides, its always a delight to do something for a friend."
She shook his hand warmly and assured him that his gracious attitude had endeared him and his work to her heart. Not long afterward, she persuaded some wealthy friends to join her in giving thousands of dollars to the Tuskegee Institute. *
Humility. That is what Jesus talks about in our gospel lesson today. He is invited to the home of a Pharisee for a meal, along with many others. He watched as the other guests tried to get the best seats, the seats of honor that are reserved for the most important guests. He then tells them a parable about how embarrassing it is for those who have taken the seats of honor to be asked by the host to take a lower seat when more prominent guests have arrived. "Take the lower place," Jesus says, "and then be pleased when the host asks you to seat in a better place. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted."
In Palestinian feasts, the men reclined on couches. The center couch was the place of honor and those who sat there were chosen according to wealth, power, or office. If a more prominent man arrived late, the person in the center couch would be asked to move to a less prominent location. Jesus is advising that people take the less prestigious seats and then they might be asked to move up, rather than being embarrassed by taking a prominent seat and being asked to move.
The question of pride and humility is very important in our world today. How often do we see people doing everything they can to get the corner office, climbing over whoever they have to to get to the top, get the promotion, the praise from others? How many times do we see children and teens wanting to be a part of the "cool" crowd, wanting to be accepted by others, no matter what? How often do people judge their self worth by how many "likes" they have on Facebook? Oftentimes, we feel entitled, that we deserve certain things because we are American, or because we have worked hard, or because it's the way our parents lived, or because of our last name. We should get things in this world because of who we are. We are entitled. And if we don't get what we think we are entitled to, then we get angry or resentful toward those who have more than we do. Sometimes we exalt ourselves more than we should.
Jesus teaches us that our self-worth comes from God, not in how we are perceived by others. Our worth does not depend on how much money we have, or where we live, or what job we have. We are all made in the image of God, and loved deeply by God. Our situation in life does not depend on our surroundings or who our friends are. It depends on how we live out the gospel, how we are Christ to one another, how we act.
Author Andrew Murray said, "The humble person feels no jealousy or envy. They can praise God when others are preferred and blessed. They can bear to hear others praised while they are forgotten because they have the spirit of Jesus, who pleased not himself and sought not his own honor. In putting on the Lord Jesus Christ, they have put on the heart of compassion, kindness, meekness, longsuffering and humility." **
In Jesus' parable, he did not say to do away with the system of determining status and power by where you sat. That was the system of the day. But what he does say is to look at how we act within the system. Those who are humbled will be exalted and those who are exalted will be humbled. It's how we behave that is important. Putting the other first, rejoicing for someone who has been recognized for some accomplishment, seeing Christ in one another - that is what is important.
It's exhausting for us to keep up with the rat-race - jockeying for the promotion, seeing who has the new car in their driveway and being jealous, the endless competition. And that system is not going to change anytime soon. So we need to learn to live within it.
Jesus tells us that as long as we search for satisfaction in ways to put ourselves above others, we may find we have lots of things, but cold and empty hearts. If we decide we are not going to play this game of competition any longer, we start to make different choices. We stop thinking we are too important to do menial tasks, like Professor Washington of the Tuskegee Institute. It's not below us to set out the chairs, or wash the dishes, or help another. The only way out of the chains of our status system is to follow Jesus' way of downward mobility. Jesus will help us to abandon the search for money, power and status, to help us quit playing the game, and give us the freedom that comes from that. ***
Our worth is not determined by others, by where we sit, by who we associate with, by how much money or power we have. Our worth is determined by whom we are loved. And we are loved deeply by God who made us all in God's image. Amen.
*story from "Synthesis", Sept. 1, 2013
** Andrew Murray, "Synthesis", Sept. 1, 2013
***"Sermons that Work", Proper 17, 2016, Whitney Rice
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