Step down

“Step down” is a message in the series “Good counsel for a good life,” preached Sept. 1, 2019, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, Edgerton, Kansas, by the Rev. James Hopwood; Luke 14.1, 7-14.

Many people who have read the gospels have noticed that in Luke’s gospel especially, Jesus seems to spend a lot of time eating. Maybe it’s because he’s an itinerant preacher who has no place to lay his head (Matthew 8.21), but he sure gets invited to dinner a lot.

In the tradition of Psalm 23, he’s often invited to eat in the presence of his enemies – and they are often looking for a way to trip him up. Perhaps because he’s so often on guard, Jesus sometimes responds by being a very rude guest. You wonder why the dinner invitations keep coming.

In today’s gospel story from Luke, Jesus is sharing a meal with a prominent member of the religious group called Pharisee. Now, we tend to think negatively of Pharisees, for some fairly good reasons, but we also need to remember that of all the varieties of Judaism in Jesus’ day, the Pharisees probably are the ones closest to Jesus’ way of thinking. They try hard to live out their faith. They just get so tied up in their own personal piety that they tend to lose sight of God.

Pharisees are not exactly allies of Jesus, but they are not always opponents either. Just a little while before this story, some Pharisees approach Jesus to warn him that he needs to be careful because the local big man, Herod Antipas, is out to arrest him.

On this Sabbath day, we’re told, the Pharisees are watching Jesus closely – some with genuine interest, surely, but others ready to pounce at the slightest provocation. Jesus pounces first. He notices that immediately after arriving, some guests don’t wait to be escorted to a seat but head straight for the places of honor near the host.

You know how it works. People who think they are big shots always arrive fashionably late, so that they can be seen by everyone, and they head directly for the prime spots, daring someone to challenge them.

Seeing this, Jesus tells a story. Luke calls it a parable – a story with a built-in zinger.

Jesus says: “When you are invited to a wedding banquet, don’t sit at a place of honor, in case a more distinguished guest arrives, and your embarrassed host has to ask you to go sit over their by the kitchen door.

“No, go sit at the lowest place, so that when your host sees you, he may say, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored rather than disgraced in everyone’s sight.”

That sounds like sound advice doesn’t it? Especially in a culture that is so heavily invested in notions of honor and shame, it makes good sense to avoid putting yourself in a situation where you might look bad.

In fact, there’s an ancient proverb that says much the same thing. Proverbs 25:6-7 says,

“Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great, for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.”

But Jesus has more in mind than simple advice. He ends his parable with an aphorism that many of his followers will find familiar: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Similar counsel comes from the Talmud, an authoritative collection of Jewish teaching over hundreds of years. Jesus is part of that tradition, of course, so it’s no wonder the sayings sound familiar.

The Talmud says: “Anyone who humbles himself, the Holy One, Blessed be He, exalts him; and anyone who exalts himself, the Holy One, Blessed be He, humbles him.” (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b)

It should be obvious now that that Jesus isn’t merely offering advice on wedding etiquette. He’s not offering advice at all. He’s telling us how God responds to certain behavior, and how we should respond to God. He’s offering us divine counsel – and that’s a whole lot better than any human advice you’re ever going to get.

This series of messages is titled “Good counsel for a good life.” It’s not called “Good advice for a good life.” These are not pithy sayings about how to get along in the world. These are some of Jesus’ prescriptions for fruitful and fulfilling life in God’s kingdom.

This is not advice from some seasoned sage who has seen it all and done it all and wants to help you avoid the pitfalls of life that he encountered personally. No, this is good counsel from the one who is named Wonderful Counselor. This is holy guidance from one who offers us the gift of the Holy Spirit, our Paraclete – that is, our counselor, our advocate, our intercessor and helper.

Be humble, Jesus says. He’s not talking about the kind of humility that says, “See how humble I am.” He’s talking about radical humility, kingdom of God Jesus-following put-the-other-person-first humility.

To illustrate, Jesus lectures his Pharisee host.

“When you give a banquet, don’t invite your friends or your relatives or your rich neighbors, because they could invite you in return, and you could be repaid for your effort.

“No, when you give a banquet, invite the poor and the sick, the hurting and the untouchable because they can’t repay you. But you will be blessed, and you’ll be repaid at the great feast in God’s kingdom.”

That’s true humility. By inviting those who can’t possibly repay you, you are inviting from the purest of motives: concern for their welfare without concern for your own personal advancement.

We in the church do that frequently through various outreach and mission efforts. In this church, specifically, we offer the weekly Grace Café or our annual Thanksgiving dinner, and we are major supporters of the community food bank operating out of our former parsonage.

We don’t expect any kind of repayment for these acts. We don’t even expect our guests to return on Sunday morning for worship and maybe one day to become members. Besides being unrealistic, such expectations are self-serving rather than other-serving. We would be looking at those we invite with an ulterior motive, a concealed agenda, dollar signs in our eyes.

On the other hand, note that we invite people into our building. It is, after all, our ministry center. It’s designed for such a purpose. Only rarely do we invite those who are poor and marginalized into our homes.

Part of the difference is cultural. In the time of Jesus, all households are expected to extend hospitality to any person in need. Typically, the poorest people extend the most hospitality to those in need, and the richest people extend the least. That’s because the poorest people recognize the value of being hospitable to others, and the richest people imagine that they are self-sufficient so everybody else ought to be, too.

We don’t have that culture of hospitality today, except on special occasions or in a few isolated communities. The very notion is considered insufferably old-fashioned, not to mention dangerous. Who knows what kind of people might come into your house, and what they might steal on the way out? No, best confine such efforts to the church building, where we can keep an eye on people.

It’s ironic that we today so often condemn the strict social hierarchies of Jesus’ time, while pretending that we live in a classless society where social hierarchies don’t exist. We can pretend they don’t exist because our social status offers us privilege. Being privileged, we can “live above” such notions. That is, we can ignore certain social rules because they don’t apply to us.

But Jesus says a reversal is on its way, and it’s called the kingdom of God.

Jesus says, “Those exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Jesus says, “The last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20.16).

So what seat do you take without thinking? Where do you sit when you’re operating on autopilot? Are you first or last? Are you humbled or exalted? Do you assume that you somehow “deserve” a good seat, or are you willing to defer to others? To put it another way, do you sit at the back of the bus when you’re not required to sit there by law or social custom?

On December 1, 1955, a black seamstress named Rosa Parks boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus in Montgomery, Alabama, headed home work. When the bus got full, and the driver told her to give her seat to a white person. She refused.

She was tired, she says. She was no more tired physically than she usually was, but she was tired of “giving in.” She was tired of having to endure the constant humiliations she was subjected to under the harsh Jim Crow laws of Southern society. Her arrest and conviction led to a long bus boycott and a Supreme Court ruling that doomed all such segregation laws.

(Did you know, by the way, that later in life Rosa Parks became a deaconess in the African Methodist Episcopal Church? If you’re looking for a Methodist saint, she’s one.)

This may seem contradictory, but it’s not. By refusing to give up her seat on the bus, she embodied the spirit of radical humility. The big shots could arrive fashionably late and hope to claim the prime spots, but she’d had enough of that. She’d been held down long enough. She just wanted to be recognized as human, and treated the way Jesus says we should treat all fellow humans – with respect and, yes, with love.

Be humble, Jesus says. He’s not offering practical advice to avoid embarrassment. He’s offering good counsel for a good life. If you’re not humble, you will be humbled, Jesus says. You may, in fact, be humiliated. You may find yourself being treated in the same shoddy manner that you treat other people. O the shame of it!

Jesus is a bit like the TV game show host who issues the loud invitation: “Come on down!”

Come on down, he says. Step down. Step down to the lowest level.

He did, after all.

He never regarded equality with God as something he could exploit to exalt himself and humiliate others.

Rather, he emptied himself, taking the lowest human form.

And being born in human form, he was humble and obedient even to death, even to death on a cross.

Therefore, God also highly exalts him and gives him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and earth and under the earth, and every tongue proclaim that Jesus the Messiah is Lord of all, to the glory of God the father. (Philippians 2.6-11)

And all who bend the knee and proclaim him as Lord try to follow him, try to be like him, thinking as he does, doing as he does. Remembering his counsel to be humble, we are mindful of where we sit, and why we sit there

We don’t take the first seat on the bus.

But neither do we take the last seat available.

We don’t take the best seat.

Instead, we take the worst seat.

We take the back seat.

We sit right next to Jesus.

And wherever he goes, we go with him, knowing that however low we go, he is always willing to go lower, and when he is raised up, he will raise us up with him (1 Peter 5.6).

Amen.

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