Sunday, August 29, 2010

Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 22
Proverbs 25:6-7 or Sir 10:12-18
Psalm 112
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14

Through him then let us offer up a sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of lips which make confession to his name. But to do good and to communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.

Last Wednesday I told the story of a man who came to volunteer at the park where I also volunteer. He came with an attitude of conceit: he was going to have an important job or he wasn’t going to volunteer. He certainly did have an impressive resume and he may have had some gift or knowledge that will benefit the park. However, it takes time for everyone to find their place in any organization, especially since the park is brand new and they are still trying to figure out how to make it work. Every volunteer has entered service with the understanding that for now our tasks are limited, but as time goes on everything will fall into place.

The park did not have any volunteer positions that fit the expectations of the man. The type of position he wanted was held by the few paid staff members, by necessity. The time may come, and has actually come, when volunteers are given more responsibilities, but on that day it was simply impossible for anyone to guarantee what type of work would be required of any volunteers. Unfortunately, since the man refused anything less than a position of importance, he’s lost the chance the find his niche. Instead of being raised up from the lower seat, he stormed out because we couldn’t give him a higher one.

Now I’ll tell you the story of another man at the park. This man was a corporate executive who was very successful at a job he enjoyed. When he heard about the park, he knew he had to be involved. He was in a financially sound position, so he quit his high paying position in the corporate world and got a hourly wage job doing maintenance at the park. This is not something everyone can do, surely, because there considerations like family considerations, but he was able. And he has been so blessed by the work, glad to get his fingers dirty for the sake of others. He is well respected by his co-workers and he loves what he is doing.

The second man was willing to take whatever was available to be a part of this wonderful park. He didn’t walk in the door demanding a position appropriate to his power and position in his world. He humbled himself for the sake of others and has found great blessing in it. Though there’s not much room for promotion right now, he may find himself one day being asked to the head of the table.

We do tend to think highly of ourselves. We each have talents and knowledge that makes us a little better than another. I’m a better photographer than some of the professionals I’ve seen. I’m a better writer than some of the bloggers I’ve read. I’m a better painter than some of the modern artists I’ve seen. The trouble comes when we think too highly of ourselves, because even though we might be good at what we do, there is always someone better. I could never hope to compete with many of the photographers, writers and artists in this world, and I don’t think I want to try. I’m happy to do what I do and hope that one day someone will see something I’ve done and give me the opportunity to share it with more people.

Television is filled with reality shows that show that attitude. It doesn’t matter what type of contest is being played: the contestants are all videotaped talking about their greatness. It seems as if they think the more arrogant they are, the better they are. It has exactly the opposite affect on me: I want them to get fired or cut or chopped the moment they claim they are the best that has ever been. I can recall numerous occasions when I’ve cheered because I heard the judgment: your time on this show is over. I have even said, “It is about time.” Their haughty attitude makes me want to see them kicked out the door, and I like to root for the person who is kind and capable, who does their work well without putting others down. Unfortunately, humility doesn’t make for good television, so the haughty tend to stick around much longer than they deserve.

As Christians, we live in such a paradox. On the one hand, the world expects us to boldly blow our own horn so that we can get ahead of our neighbor. As Christians, however, we are reminded that we are called to be like Jesus, who had it all but humbled Himself for the sake of the world. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells the crowds not to rush for the best seats at a banquet. He reminds them that there are others who may deserve to sit higher, and that it is better to sit lowly and be raised rather than sit according to our expectations and be humiliated when asked to move. “For everyone that exalteth himself shall be humbled; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” So, too, it is with us: if we think too highly of ourselves, we will find that there is someone greater. But if we humbly accept the least, we’ll find ourselves raised.

The Old Testament lesson for today is very short, just two verses from the book of Proverbs. Most of book is one or two line words of wisdom to help us live our lives as God intends. Today’s passage agrees with Jesus’ words to the crowd about pride. “For better is it that it be said unto thee, Come up hither, Than that thou shouldest be put lower in the presence of the prince, Whom thine eyes have seen.” We are encouraged to expect a lower place and let others lift you up and show your value. How do we live in this paradox? How do we do what it necessary to succeed in this world and yet also remain humbly respectful of those who are inevitably better?

This isn’t a question of worth or ability. It is a matter of pride. It is good to give an employer reasons to hire you, to do a good job and show that you are a valuable asset to any company or organization. It is not good to be too proud. The passage from Sirach (otherwise known as Ecclesiasticus, one of the deuterocanonical books) for today has this to say, “The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart has withdrawn from its Maker.” (Sirach 10:12, NRSV)

The issue Jesus is dealing with in today’s Gospel less is much deeper than our place at a table or our positions at work. Pride makes us look out for ourselves and ignore the needs and value of others. From Sirach, “For the beginning of pride is sin, and the one who clings to it pours out abominations.” (Sirach 10:13a, NRSV) When we live in pride, our focus becomes self-centered and we fall into other sins like lust and greed; the seat we have today is never good enough, so we strive to take hold of something better. We are never happy.

When we put our focus on ourselves, we become self-centered and demanding. We expect others to bow to our greatness, to give us what we think we deserve. But the world of the proud is a frightful place because the haughty never stay at the top for long. There is always someone better who will come along to put us in our place. So we live in fear that someone else will come along and do what we did against us to get ahead. We become paranoid that everyone is out to destroy us. When we are not content with our lot in life, we think that no one else is content either. In our pride, we refuse the opportunities that will make us truly blessed because we are too busy fighting to keep on top.

Pride causes us to love ourselves above others, including God. The writer of Hebrews gives us an image of the life of faith manifested in this world. He calls Christians to love one another, to be hospitable to the stranger, empathetic to the imprisoned, faithful in relationships and content in everything. He calls us to look to God who supplies everything we need: physically, emotionally and spiritually. He reminds us to remember the witnesses who have shared the Gospel of Christ with us so that we might be saved and follow their example. We are to stand firm in the truth that Jesus Christ is the same today as He was and as He will be.

“Through him then let us offer up a sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of lips which make confession to his name. But to do good and to communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.” The life of faith, the life of humility, is manifested in a life that is lived for others. When we trust in God, we need not pursue after the places of honor or the satisfaction of our lusts and greed. The humble will be lifted and the place of honor is much greater than anything a man can offer. We will be seated in the presence of God to bask in His glory for eternity. For this we most certainly can praise God.

The psalmist writes, “Blessed is the man that feareth Jehovah, That delighteth greatly in his commandments.” We are reminded that fear of God is not like the fear we experience in our pride. To fear God is to hold Him in awe, to keep Him in His rightful place, to be humble before Him. Pride means putting ourselves above the God who is our Creator and Redeemer. Humility means sitting in the lesser place, meeting the needs of others above our own. When we put others, especially God, ahead of ourselves and do what is right, we will find ourselves to be greatly blessed. God sees the humble heart and draws it to Himself, and there is no better place for us to dwell.

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