Forsaking the Seat of Honor

August 28, 2016

Bible Text: Luke 14:1, 7-14 |

The other day I was thumbing through a catalogue of Christian books, and – I knew better than this, but I gave into temptation – and read the description of a book recently published by a TV evangelist. The only reason I read it was to be disgusted. And I was:

Success isn’t random (it said)! Sharing eight undeniable qualities of a winner, [the author] encourages you to … [practice] these principles [to] help you become a champion in whatever you pursue!

Bleh! Where’s the Christianity in that?! Follow these rules to manipulate God and everyone else in order to get whatever you want.

And yet, for all my disgust, it certainly seems that in this morning’s gospel Jesus is using the same incentive: Humble yourself, he tells us – which seems familiar enough. But why should we humble ourselves? So that we can be exalted.

Come on. Scheming for exaltation hardly sounds like the Jesus we think we know.

But here’s the thing: exaltation is only bad when it means that one person is being exalted at another person’s expense – that someone is being left behind or forgotten.

That’s what’s at the heart of the “white privilege” dialogue taking place in our country right now. There’s nothing wrong with being white. There’s nothing wrong with having a pleasant life. The wrongness of it comes when our circumstances blind us to the reality of how others live, in circumstances quite different and unchangeable from our own. It’s fine to enjoy good things. But it’s not so fine when our enjoyment is sheltered behind privileged walls – that not only keep others out, but keep us in a position of judgment and condemnation of a world we’re not truly seeing or understanding.

And Jesus is always calling us to risk exploring that world beyond whatever walls make us feel that we belong and that we are safe. And make no mistake: these walls can take many forms.

What is the world like for those who aren’t white?

What is the world like for those raised in poverty?

What is the world like for those raised with an alcoholic or abusive parent, regardless of their race or wealth?

For that matter, what is the world like for those raised in extreme wealth, such that they can never trust that they are desired for anything beyond their resources?

All of us are being formed by powers, both good and bad, that are different from our own. We’re each interpreting this world from our own vantage point, making choices based on what we can see and understand. We’ve all learned to survive within the safety of our own walls, no matter how flimsy they may be. And we keep showing up early to the party to claim the best seats, laying our jackets over the back of the chair to make sure no one else will get them.

And along comes Jesus and says,

Take your jacket off the chair and leave that seat for someone else. I want you come with me – to leave this party and go outside the walls to a party quite different than your own. And when we get there, should you find someone who’s cold, you’re going to need to give your jacket away. 

Jesus shows us that it’s perfectly fine to be honored and exalted. But the way that happens in his Father’s kingdom is that we choose a place at the back of the line and join Jesus in helping everybody else get forward first.

So long as we’re scrambling for the best seats, everyone else is merely a competitor. But when we seek out the worst seats, everyone else becomes the ones whose flourishing gives us joy. St. John’s, we’re with Jesus now.

Earlier this month I read the news that a drunk driver was speeding down an Interstate in Arkansas – which is bad enough. But this guy was also driving in the wrong direction. When a state trooper saw what was happening, and the countless lives that were in peril, he steered his car and deliberately ran head-on into the drunk driver’s car in order to stop him and save many lives.

In the language of Jesus’ teaching, State Trooper 1st Class Roy Moomey took the lowest seat in order that many could be seated above him – so that many could live. And is there any doubt among us that, in the Kingdom of God, this trooper, who survived the crash with serious injuries, is indeed in the seat of honor?

I’ve been struck these past few weeks watching how the music ministry has been developing at St. John’s. We hired Chris to replace Joe when Joe announced that he was moving to Amsterdam. But when Chris learned that Joe’s trip was cancelled from circumstances beyond his control, he offered the position back to Joe. No one asked him to do this, or even hinted that he should. He was thoroughly within his rights to keep the job he’d already secured. But, in the words of Jesus, Chris gave the seat of honor to Joe, and took the lower seat himself.

But, if you go back even further, you can just as well say that Joe had also given up the seat of honor when he chose to step away from the security of his life here in Washington, to move to Amsterdam to care for his dying friend.

What’s made the story so pleasing to watch from the sidelines, has been the joy of witnessing two men living out their faith and values with such integrity that each has been willing to forgo their rights, to release their privilege, in order that someone else would be cared for first.

So like many of you, I’m eager to see what lies ahead. Joe is back in the same position where he started. But from the vantage point of heaven, it’s no longer the same position at all. Having been re-forged by love and graciousness and sacrifice, the job is now changed. And Chris is with us still. We’ve appointed him as Associate Choirmaster and Organist – a bigger title than the pay suggests. It’s funded by money that was budgeted for our fourth choral scholar, a position that needed to be filled anyway.

So both are with us, seated at the same table, and the choir loft is now prepared to make music of the truest kind.

This is the Kingdom of God. This is how Jesus showed us to live. To love your neighbor as yourself is not simply to have good feelings for them or to do them no harm. Love is an action; it is a choice to do what is good for the other – even when it comes at great cost to yourself. And in God’s good time, you too will be lifted up, so that nobody is left behind. We shall all be lifted up together, sharing the common privilege befitting the children of God.

I’m eager, too, to see the Kingdom of God unfold in the next four months while I am on sabbatical. Laura will be Priest-in-Charge at St. John’s, with all the authority and privilege of the rector, leading in ways that are natural and true of who she is. It will be good for her formation as a priest. It will be good for her résumé. From a vocational and professional perspective, she will be given the seat of honor.

Meanwhile, I’ll be staying in a cottage in the Scottish highlands, hiking during the day and drinking scotch by the fire at night. Not exactly a “seat of dishonor” by any means!

But it does mean that in my absence I entrust to another the work I enjoy and feel responsible for: to oversee next year’s budget process and the work of the vestry; to be the priest who welcomes visitors and new members to the parish, to give voice and vision as this congregation continues to be formed into the Kingdom of God.

I trust Laura – both her skill and her integrity as a follower of Christ. But as much as “trusting her” is an affirmation of her ability, it also indicates that – for a season anyway – I relinquish my position in our parish.

And I trust you all. Because, of course, this isn’t my church. We are the church only inasmuch as we are the church together, a people striving to live out the Kingdom as Jesus showed us – loving one another with graciousness and humility – striving to forge a world where everybody is lifted up.

As I think about these things, in light of Jesus’ seats of honor and dishonor, I discover that I’m not even sure which is which anymore. Because from the perspective of faith, that seat of dishonor – the lowly seat – well, that’s Jesus’ seat. That is truly the place where it all becomes real. When we take that seat, emptying ourselves of honor and privilege and security, we put ourselves in a place of real need, a place where God has got to come through for us and those we seek to serve. And – my God – that is truly the place of faith and wonder.

You want to know God? You want to experience God? Then get off the comfy couch and go where God is. Find your wobbly stool in the servants’ quarter, on which – when you’ve finished your day’s work of serving others – you may take your rest. And see if Jesus isn’t sitting there with you. And see, too, if you may discover that you have not been toiling alone during the day, but have been working side-by-side with the Christ whose presence you’ve long desired.

I speak in loftier terms than I can rightly claim for myself. Although the work of being rector involves its fair share of servanthood, this parish has always served me well in return. You pay me a decent salary, with better benefits than most workers in our country receive. You show me frequent love and gratitude. And now you send me off with a generous spirit that I may experience a season of sabbatical rest. And I make my pledge to you, that I will use this season to seek out God in deeper and truer ways. And should God choose to call me into unplanned places of servanthood while I am away, I will accept those in faith as part of God’s call to me. For the Sabbath rest of God is always near to us.

And when I return I am eager to hear the stories of how God has been calling St. John’s into deeper places of servanthood and love.

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