Seats of Honor

Sermon for August 29th, 2010 (Proper 17, Year C, RCL)
The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

One of the stories I’ve never forgotten about the old days when Don and I worked for NBC News had to do with a certain gentleman who dared to disrupt the pecking order on the White House press plane—apparently he had never heard, or forgot to apply to his life, this morning’s gospel about not sitting down at the place of honor.

The unspoken but clearly understood protocol on the press plane went like this:  those highly-coveted seats that had been reserved for first class before this 747 was chartered for the White House press corps, were for the esteemed first string reporters—the top-billed stars from each of the major networks and newspapers who were pretty much household names.  During the Reagan administration, when this story takes place, they were folks like Sam Donaldson at ABC, Helen Thomas of UPI and Johnny Apple of the New York Times.

The so-called business class seats were for the second-string correspondents—in television that meant the ones whose faces we all saw on the morning shows more than the evening newscasts…folks like Brit Hume, who was then at ABC, and Andrea Mitchell at NBC.  You get the idea.  Then the remainder of the plane, the so-called “cattle class” seats–were for the rest of the press pack.

Now this gentleman who dared to disrupt the pecking order on the plane had recently become a manager at one of the news bureaus.  But his previous career had been in politics, not journalism.  So when one of the top network correspondents dropped off the trip at a scheduled stop and this gentleman took his open seat in first class, it did not go unnoticed.  Whether he knew it or not, by taking one of the most honored seats on the plane the message this gentleman sent to everyone else was that he deemed himself among those worthy of such honor.  It didn’t help that when a well-known correspondent tapped this new bureau manager on the shoulder and said, “You know, to sit in that seat, you should have covered a news story at least once in your life,” that our squatter in first-class didn’t move.

“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Contrast that with this story of my friend Marcy. Marcy’s daughter recently got married, and both the wedding and the reception were in Marcy’s back yard at her house in Washington.  Since the groom’s family was from the other side of the country and no one was sure who got along with who, there were no assigned seats at the reception.  Marcy figured they were all adults, and could find their own seats among the many tables.

When it came time to be seated, Marcy approached a centrally-located table where as the hostess she could keep her eye on things.  But when she asked if she could join the folks sitting there, she was told the seat was being saved for someone else.  So Marcy graciously moved  to another table–another table where the same thing happened again.  Unbelievably, the mother of bride—the woman who was hosting and paying for this beautiful event—was told three times that the seat she wanted was being saved for someone else!  And each time, Marcy just responded graciously and moved on—finally being seated at a table in a corner near one of the tent poles, and on a slope that made it nearly impossible to negotiate.  Now this was all perfectly fine with Marcy.  In fact, the only reason I even know about it is because another friend told me.  When I asked Marcy about it, she simply laughed and said, “It was fine!  I ended up sitting with some of the groom’s aunts and uncles and we had a great time getting to know each other!”

“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is at a dinner party at the home of a noted Pharisee.  Luke tells us “they were watching him closely.”  But Jesus was watching them, too… watching them jostling for the most honored seats at the table; and jockeying for social standing and respect.  So as he is want to do, Jesus offers a wee bit of unsolicited advice—first to the dinner guests and then to the host.

It was good advice, but as NT Wright so dryly observes, “Jesus didn’t come to offer good advice.” Nor did Jesus come to offer instructions on avoiding humiliation—or even worse, about how to use false humility to make ourselves look good.  So there is much more to this story than meets the eye.  You see, what Jesus came to offer us– with his very life–was a choice between the way of fear and the way of love.

Theologian Paul Borgman says it this way: that what Jesus is offering us in this gospel is “…a fundamental choice between God’s way and normal ways.”  Jesus is offering us a choice between humbly accepting the reality of God’s love for us (and the freedom to love others that living into that reality provides) or of living into what is sadly the normative way for so many of us—the fear-based way of self-promotion—the way of “exalting” ourselves, or putting ourselves above others— not just by sitting in the most honored seats or socializing with the most important people at dinner parties, but by the myriad other ways we have of making ourselves feel and look “better than” others, because we’re so essentially afraid of being “less than.”

“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

It turns out that to be humble—from the Latin “humis” for earth—is to be grounded, to be down-to-earth and right-sized.  To be humble is to live in God’s reality, God’s “Kingdom-reality.”   And in God’s reality, there are no bad seats and no unwanted guests.  We are all invited.  We are all the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind, all somehow broken or malformed.  And yet we are all loved, all precious and beautiful in His eyes.

In the Old Testament lesson this morning we heard that, “The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord.” Well, whenever we try to exalt or elevate ourselves in our own eyes or the eyes of others, we are essentially forsaking God by not accepting his love for us. God has already exalted each and every one of us in Christ, exalted us beyond anything we could ever possibly imagine or accomplish for ourselves.  If we were really humble, if we really got, in our heart of hearts, how much he loves and honors us…we wouldn’t give a darn how we look to anyone else.  We’d have no need to “prove” ourselves to anyone, least of all ourselves.

And then we’d be free.  Free from the fear of being less than.  Free from the fear of what other people think.  Free from the fear of not getting what we need or of losing what we already have.  Free to love as he loves us!

The Rev. Dr. David Lose says that, “… precisely because…God has conferred upon us a dignity and worth we could never secure for ourselves – we are free to do the same for others.  We are free to put them before ourselves, to lead them to seats of honor, to invite them to be our dinner guests–not because of what they can do for us, but because of what has already been done for all of us…”

When we really understand the magnificence and the mystery of how much God loves us, when we understand and accept that we are all honored guests at Christ’s table, it no longer matters where we sit, or who we sit with.  What matters is that we invite others to the banquet.  Amen.

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