Reclaiming the Word “Humility”
 — Rev. Phil Hobson

August 28, 2016

Luke 14:1, 7-14

Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.

We are a congregation trying to discern what God is calling us to be and do. To help us, I want to see if we cannot reclaim some of the language of faith. Today’s Gospel story brings us to the word humility. Now, I get it. Humility gets a bad rap. It often gets confused with either weakness or humiliation. Turns out, it is quite the opposite. But we need to go to a dinner party to get there.

In Luke’s Gospel, you cannot turn a page without Jesus being at a dinner with someone. Here we have him at the house of one of the leaders of the Pharisees.

For some background, Pharisees were the religious leaders who sought to bring more of the Temple practices into the homes and everyday lives of the people. In the Gospels, Pharisees are the foil to Jesus’ preaching of the Kingdom of God. They are the religious types who want stricter rules. And since they are the arbiter of these rules, this gives them clout and power over others.

At this dinner, Jesus sees people trying to get the good seats. As David Lose puts it,

In an honor/shame society, a dinner party at this house is like high stakes political maneuvering. Physically getting up and moving down the table would have mirrored the loss of status, the shame being brought upon oneself and one’s family.

To be at a leader’s house and to sit in a place of honor with the host is as much a political act as it is a social one. First century networking.

And just in case we missed it, it is the Sabbath. They are not resting and giving thanks for what God has provided. They are working to secure their own futures, eyeing who sits where, regardless of the day.

Jesus has probably been invited because he is the hot new preacher in town, and such dinners love to host the latest celebrities.

Seeing the guests working the room, Jesus tells them a parable:

When you skip church to attend a $1,000 per plate fundraiser for your favorite candidate, do not try and manipulate your way to get face to face time with the movers and shakers, because then the candidate’s people may lead you away saying that they are too busy right now. Instead, sit back, talk with the ones who don’t get face time. Seem happy and content with what you are doing and where you are, so that the movers and shakers are intrigued with you and the candidate invites you to come and talk and everyone can see them reaching out to you.

This part of the parable is for these guests who turn even a Sabbath dinner into a rat race. The problem of the rat race is: even if we win, we are still a rat. Sabbath is about remembering that we are humans, not rats; remembering we are created in the image of God, not self-made people.

But parables are difficult. We want to solve them. It is easier to sort out a commandment, a psalm or even a morality tale, which these parables kind of sound like, don’t they?

But the point of a parable is the way it makes us wrestle with what it is saying. It would be so much simpler if Jesus commanded us to sit low and invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. But the point of the parable is made in our struggle with it.

Some of the wrestling a group of our church members did with this parable is this:

  1. Why do we even need seating charts anyway?
  2. We all do a little self-evaluation: Who among us would presume to sit in the place of honor?
  3. Isn’t sitting lower than we think we ought to SO THAT we can be invited up higher a bit of a contradiction?
  4. In some cultures, this kind of thing leads to strange customs. Like in China, where you do not say thank you for a gift. Because saying thank you means you acknowledge the gift and obligates you to make an equal gift in return.
  5. Some of us take pride in sitting in the middle and staying out of this stuff altogether.
  6. Inviting those who cannot pay you back makes it pretty easy to pat ourselves on the back; kind of like being “proud of our humility.”
  7. And none of this changes the system, there are still higher and lower places.
  8. Even those with little to nothing still have stuff to offer. Like people who come to the food pantry in Eaton Rapids for their groceries, but then bring fresh veggies they have grown and give those for others and for the staff who work there.

Parables don’t need solving. They help lead us to better questions and deeper understanding.

The second part of the parable spoken to the host. It is his table. He can invite who he wants. And in the invitation, he can choose to play the game or not. Jesus tells him:

When you throw a dinner, do not invite the neighbors, the business contacts, the colleagues, the same people who will just invite you back and close the circle of who you know. Instead, invite the ones who have trouble making it up the steps, invite the ones who do not get invited to such tables as yours, invite the ones who don’t get invited to anybody’s table. You might not get invited back to their table; but you will have a place at God’s table.

Invite the ones who are not useful to your plans, and discover abundant diversity of those created in the image of God. Or as Barbara Brown Taylor says,

The hardest spiritual work in the world is to love the neighbor as the self – to encounter another human being not as someone you can use, change, fix, help, enroll, convince or control, but simply as someone who can spring you from the prison of yourself, if you will allow it.

Sounds like our Community Easter Dinner, doesn’t it?

Invite those who cannot afford a family dinner, or have no family to share it with. Feed them dinner and make them our family. Sit and listen to their stories. Let them change us.

Humility is not arbitrarily sitting lower at the table. Humility is recognizing that we are all children of God. God is God. We are not. And maybe that changes our invitations and our seating charts. At the very least, it changes how we see one another.

I recently asked Pastor Tom Ott about doing the reVision work we are about to embark on. He said that the best thing about the program was the constant reminder that no single person among us has the answer. If we did, we would have figured it by now.

Instead, we come together, all of us, and we seek to be a community of discernment. We listen together for the still speaking voice of God. This is the essence of humility. Not spending all our time and energy trying to secure our own future for ourselves. Listening and praying and discerning and living into God’s future.

For God is God. And we are not. Neither are we rats for the rat race. We are human beings, created in God’s image. Children of God. Beloved of Christ. And so is everyone else. For all are invited.

Thanks be to God. Amen.