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

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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.”

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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.

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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

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Overwhelmed: A Sermon for Lectionary 18C / Pentecost 11C

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Augustana Lutheran Church
31 July 2016 + Lectionary 18C
Luke 12.13-21 [22-34]



elections_ahead_sky_0It’s all a little bit overwhelming, isn’t it? This election season, that is. We’ve certainly witnessed a mix of exciting and interesting moments.

One moment in particular caught my attention this past Tuesday as delegates at the Democratic National Convention cast their votes, state by state, for their party’s nominee for president. Jerry Emmett, a 102-year-old delegate from Arizona, herself older than women’s suffrage, proudly announced her state’s votes for the first woman candidate, nominated by a major political party, for President of the United States. It was overwhelming to watch.

Now, in case you can’t tell, I’m a bit of a political junkie, and it’s easy for me to become overwhelmed in all the excitement—and anxiety—of an election year.

But even if you don’t share my particular fascination with politics, surely you know what it’s like to be overwhelmed. For better or worse, being alive means having no shortage of things which overwhelm us.

For many of us, it’s technology. It’s hard to imagine any ordinary moment of life without our devices. Sherry Turkle identifies what she calls the “I share therefore I am” principle—the idea that we have come to define ourselves by our digital presence and social media output.

And so, when we don’t have connection, she says, we don’t feel like ourselves, and so, to compensate, we connect more and more—but as we do, we in fact become more isolated, replacing digital connection for the real thing. [1]

I have a hunch the rich man in the parable from today’s gospel reading knows something about being overwhelmed to the point of isolation.

The parable begins: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly.” Good news, right? For this man, not so much. Instead of viewing his surplus as a blessing, he is immediately overwhelmed and frames it as a problem to be solved. “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” His solution? Build a bigger barn, and store the crops for himself.

It would seem the rich man in this ancient parable is latching on to a rather timeless phenomenon that finds its expression par excellence in our contemporary culture. Theologian Rob Saler puts it this way:

We are programmed to be “not only consumers, but anxious consumers. Even as we are urged to spend and spend, we are simultaneously bombarded with injunctions to save and build up wealth for retirement [and] future catastrophes… We measure the health of the economy by its ‘growth’ even as we are warned that only those who have sufficient reserves will be able to navigate the future successfully.” [2]

No wonder we’re overwhelmed. Hoarding up stockpiles like the rich man is made to seem like a lucrative opportunity. It means safeguarding ourselves for the future. It means not having to rely on anyone but ourselves.

But of course it can also mean isolating ourselves. For Saler, it’s as though we’re actually able to “purchase distance” from each other and the world around us, a sort of “padding” against any potential threats.

And so the parable ends: The rich man, having stockpiled his possessions, will die, alone. There is no one to answer to God’s question about who will inherit all his stuff.

Still feeling overwhelmed?

Beyond the confines of the lectionary, Jesus immediately continues, “Therefore I tell you…” As if to say, This is the point. Pay attention! “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear… Consider the ravens… Consider the lilies…” It’s a passage many of us have heard before and could probably quote, or at least paraphrase, from memory.

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Remember too that all this talk about the rich man and his barn, and about ravens and lilies, started with a simple request from someone in the crowd: “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Did Jesus miss that entirely… or is he making a much more profound point? Hold that thought.

Physicist and theologian Paul Wallace recounts one particularly memorable moment in his introductory astronomy course. He began his standard opening lecture: “Under a dark and transparent atmosphere, with an unobstructed horizon and healthy vision, one can see at most about 3,000 stars.” He goes on: “And if we were to remove our home planet from under our feet we would see 3,000 more.” [3]

It was this last point that caused one of his students to react first with a look of horror before grinning and explaining, “It’s just that you said that there are stars under my feet, and I had never really thought of it like that before.”

In that moment, Wallace’s student suddenly became aware of his relatively small place within the vastness of the cosmos. Maybe you’ve had one of those moments too, looking up at the stars in the night sky, or standing in awe of some other natural wonder.

Moments like these reorient our perspective and move us from being overwhelmed by the things that distract and isolate us to being overwhelmed by creation—the very creation that Jesus points to: “Consider the ravens… Consider the lilies…”

As if to say: Look! It’s not just about you. There’s a whole world, a whole universe, out there, and it’s all connected.

Jesus points to a small sliver of the vastness of the cosmos and offers an alternative vision: It’s a vision that reminds us of our radical dependence on God’s grace and God’s certain word of forgiveness. It’s vision that reminds us that we are dependent creatures.  But it’s also a vision that reminds us we are interdependent.

The splendor of creation, the vastness of the cosmos, the radical grace of God. It’s overwhelming.

Rather than isolation, being overwhelmed by these things, to borrow from Saler again, “frees us up to be creatures who joyfully embrace our dependence upon each other and our environment.” It’s an alternative to the ways we get wrapped up in ourselves and our own worries and concerns.

“Do not worry,” Jesus says, and concludes: “Instead, strive for God’s kingdom.”

It reminds me of a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., I have hanging above my desk in my office: “An individual has not started living until they can rise above the narrow confines of individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

King liked to call the kingdom of God “the Beloved Community.” I like that because it reminds us of the communal nature of that kingdom.

Jesus’s alternative vision to strive for God’s kingdom has to do with building up the Beloved Community.

It’s the community prophetically imagined by Mary where the lowly are lifted up and the hungry are filled with good things. It’s a community whose members are “rich toward God,” which starts by being rich toward our neighbor, as the Good Samaritan reminds us.

It’s a community we are welcomed into at our baptism and which continues to be strengthened every week when we gather at this Table. When we take into our hands simple bread and wine, we wield powerful reminders that the Beloved Community proclaims resurrected life in spite of death and abundance in the midst of scarcity.

It’s an overwhelming mystery that proclaims there is enough to go around in God’s kingdom. We don’t have to hoard it, but we  do get to share it freely.


[1] https://www.ted.com/talks/sherry_turkle_alone_together

[2] http://www.lutheransrestoringcreation.org/the-eleventh-sunday-after-pentecost-in-year-c

[3] Paul Wallace, Stars Beneath Us: Finding God in the Evolving Cosmos (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), vii.