A Sermon for Those Who Have Been Told to Take the Lowest Place

Standard

Augustana Lutheran Church
28 August 2016 + Lectionary 22C
Luke 14.1, 7-14



Wash your hands.
Pray before you eat.
Don’t chew with your mouth open.
Keep your elbows off the table.

All phrases that I imagine each of us has heard as children that teach us table manners.

And the fancier the meal, these table manners only seem to get more strict and more elaborate. Imagine Downton Abbey.

Or closer to home: when the good china comes out at Christmas or Thanksgiving, or maybe going out for a nice dinner at the best steakhouse in town.

And yet all these settings would probably pale in comparison to a candlelight supper, hosted by one Hyacinth Bucket. That’s B-U-C-K-E-T, bouquet.

If you get that reference, you have instantly 2073727127_a383fce445_zbecome of my new favorite people who knows and appreciates the television masterpiece that is Keeping Up Appearances.

The show follows the anything-but-ordinary life of Hyacinth Bucket, whose relentless and often exaggerated attempts at climbing the social ladder provide much of the show’s humor. In nearly every episode, Hyacinth goes to great lengths to steer clear of her much more “lower-class” sister Daisy and her husband, while constantly reminding everyone of her much wealthier sister Violet—all part of her ceaseless social climbing.


Jesus encounters a great deal of social climbing in today’s gospel. At the house of a prominent religious leader, all the guests clamor for the places of honor.

The instruction Jesus offers to the guests in his parable seems straightforward enough: Don’t scramble for the place of honor. If someone more important comes along, you might get bumped down lower. So instead, do just the opposite. It’s better to be told, “Come up here,” than to be put lower. It’s advice straight out of the wisdom sayings we encounter in our reading from Proverbs.

But even more radical is what Jesus says in the follow-up to the parable where he turns his attention to the hosts. Don’t invite the usual suspects, but invite those who are poor, crippled, lame, blind—those who cannot invite you back, those who are explicitly excluded by first-century Palestinian “table manners.”

These are the ones who have had no choice but to take the “lowest place”—or no place at all—because that’s where the system has told them they belong. But they’re precisely the ones that Jesus would have at the table.


The church, too, is guilty of its own restrictive and exclusive “table manners.”

083116clare_detail

Clare Byarugaba (photo credit: Timothy Meinch / Christian Century)

Clare Byarugaba is an activist who lives in Uganda. She also happens to be a lesbian.

 

She talks about growing up in the Anglican church in her hometown of Kabale, in southwestern Uganda. Her father played the organ, and she sang in the choir. Clare fondly remembers a happy childhood experience in the church: “I never really questioned my faith or the Bible,” she says. “I was in a certain place with God, and it was good.”

Even after she first noticed her same-sex attraction, and started bringing her girlfriends to church with her, she had reconciled her sexuality and her faith. Certain of her identity, she laughingly remarked, “God will deal with it.”

The church of her adulthood, however, holds a different opinion. Clare recounts one Sunday in 2009 when her pastor urged the congregation to sign a petition backing antigay legislation that would make provision for the death penalty in certain cases of same-sex activity. That day, she decided it would be the last time she went to church, reflecting later, “It was so, so painful… The people who were supposed to bring you closer to God were calling for your death.” [1]

Unfortunately, homophobia in the church is a phenomenon not restricted to Uganda and one we know all too well in our North American context. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer individuals told they don’t belong simply because of who they are and whom they love. Or at best, welcomed, but with an asterisk to take the “lowest place.” Be celibate. Don’t get married. You can’t raise children. Don’t be too flamboyant.

There is no shortage of persons in our world who have been told they belong in the “lowest place.” LGBTQ+ persons are just one example.

A video produced by Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago highlights another. It’s called “Get Home Safely: 10 Rules of Survival,” and it features black youth offering advice to their peers on how to survive getting stopped by police. [2] Advice, I must admit, I never had to consider growing up white. Be polite. Don’t argue. Keep your hands visible. Don’t run. Don’t resist. In other words, take the “lowest place” because to attempt to do anything more is to risk your life.


When Clare Byarugaba decided to return to the very church that only a few years earlier had deeply hurt her, she walked in during an opening praise medley that included a song paraphrasing Isaiah 61:

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.”

Words that should sound familiar because they are the very words spoken by Jesus that launch and define his public ministry earlier in Luke’s gospel. Words that give Clare hope for the future of her beloved church.

Words that declare that God is always and especially concerned for the outsider and the oppressed.

I am grateful to come from a seminary that embraces the idea of public church, because public church, too, is, at its best, rooted in these words.

The church declares that in baptism we are claimed as God’s own and marked with the cross of Christ forever. The church declares one’s worth is not dependent on where society tells you you belong—but that you are worthy because you are a beloved and redeemed child of God.

black-lives1

And the public church proclaims that message of sacred worth to the world and fights like hell against systems that deny it to queer lives, to black lives, to refugee and immigrant lives.

Jesus’s insistence that poor and crippled and lame and blind lives matter enough to have a place at the table is much more than a lesson in simple table manners. It’s a radical re-envisioning of a world marked by God’s reign of justice.


[1] http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2016-08/unshakable-uganda

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wqJ-psD9vJw

Some Thoughts on Charleston

Standard

I haven’t really said anything about Charleston because, really, what more can I say that hasn’t already been said? I first heard the story on NPR on my way to CPE Thursday morning. To say I was horrified, like so many others, would be an understatement.

The next thought that came to my mind was that not one year ago I was on vacation in Charleston and fell in love with the city. I looked up the church on Google maps and saw that it’s only a few blocks away from the hotel I stayed at. Suddenly I realized it’s very possible that I may have unknowingly walked by one of Mother Emanuel’s members during my week-long stay.

Now, Charleston’s a big city, and the likelihood of that possibility is slim–but it exists. And it serves to underscore the reality that those killed Wednesday night are not just crime statistics but actual flesh-and-blood human beings. The age range of the victims goes from 26 to 87. These are people’s children, siblings, parents, grandparents, friends. I may have never met any of them, but those who did know them will live with irreplaceable loss for the rest of their lives.

I also read that two of the pastors killed were graduates of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, a sister institution of my own seminary in Chicago. The beloved community of Emanuel AME lost their spiritual leaders this week–the very people that they should be able to turn to when tragedies like this happen.

But this runs deeper than personal and institutional loss. This is about a problem in our country that just won’t go away. Ferguson. Staten Island. Cleveland. Baltimore. Charleston. It’s a litany of incidents of violence and disregard done to black bodies in this country, and it goes back to the very beginning. Slavery. Jim Crow. Lynchings. Mass incarceration. This is a systemic problem.

The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the Charleston case as a federal hate crime, and I applaud that decision. But this case seems to be more the exception than the rule. Not to mention that, as painful as it is to utter, Charleston will happen again. The only question is where and when.

So what do we do?

Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, urges us to get to work:

Each of us and all of us need to examine ourselves, our church and our communities. We need to be honest about the reality of racism within us and around us. We need to talk and we need to listen, but we also need to act. No stereotype or racial slur is justified. Speak out against inequity. Look with newly opened eyes at the many subtle and overt ways that we and our communities see people of color as being of less worth. Above all pray – for insight, for forgiveness, for courage. [1]

But how? Among those of us who have been in the trenches doing this work for a while, I can’t imagine I’m the only one who asks, “What more can we do?” Or to echo the psalmist, “How long, O Lord?”  How many more Fergusons and Charlestons do we have to go through?


This week, my Facebook feed has been filled with posts about Charleston. I read a few articles and watched a couple videos, but I couldn’t bring myself to say anything. Not because I didn’t want to or because I didn’t care. I just don’t know what to say anymore. And frankly, I’m tired of all this crap.

But I do know that we the church need to keep showing up. We need to keep showing up where the pain is, where the suffering is, where the brokenness is. And we need to keep witnessing to the radically inclusive Gospel that declares Black Lives Matter. We need to be the ones to declare to the evil of racism, no matter how many times it takes, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped!” (Job 38.11)

When the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Emanuel’s senior pastor and one of those killed on Wednesday night, was elected state senator, he was asked how he could reconcile being involved in politics with being a religious leader. He said, “Our calling is not just within the walls of the congregation, but we are part of the life and community in which our condition resides.” [2]

I don’t know if Rev. Pinckney knew how prophetic his words would be, but I think the best way to honor his memory and the memory of the other eight beloved children of God is to never forget those words. For indeed, whether we like it or not, our community is bound up in an inescapable network of mutuality. I only pray that all people might come to recognize that.


[1] http://www.elca.org/News-and-Events/7753

[2] http://www.npr.org/2015/06/18/415537203/when-charleston-s-c-pastor-spoke-people-listened