Sunday, September 1, 2013

Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Proverbs 25:2-10
Psalm 131
Hebrews 13:1-7
Luke 14:1-14

Jehovah, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty; Neither do I exercise myself in great matters, Or in things too wonderful for me.

There was an article in this month’s Reader’s Digest called, “13 Secrets a Reality TV Show Producer Won’t Tell you.” I’m sure that none of us are surprised by any of these secrets. The first, “Reality TV is actually not, well—real.” While we might want to believe that there is some semblance of reality in these shows, we all know they are not documentaries. After all, they film for hours every day with multiple cameras. In one case, it is eleven cameras for eight hours seven days a week. They end up with 616 hours of footage, out of which we see 42 minutes. It is easy to make 42 minutes say whatever they want it to say.

They even edit those on camera interviews, though not scripted are edited to make the person say what the producer wants the person to say. They even do what’s called, “frankenbiting,” which is a process of fitting words and phrases together from different conversations to create the conversation the producers want to present. The contestants are not real, either. They are often characters created to make the show interesting. In one case, a person who was ‘cast’ as a villain turned out to be the nicest person. The producer convinced her to play along or she would be fired (sent home early.) Even the winners are sometimes planned ahead of time, and the judges do not always have a say in who goes home. If a character is good for ratings, they will stay no matter how terrible they are.

These truths make me wonder about some of the characters on reality shows that I have hated in the past, or even in the present. We all have experienced that disappointment that someone who needs to go home now is kept on for another week. We ask, “How could they possibly leave her continue?” Now we know; she’s a moneymaker for the show. She keeps it interesting. She gives them good footage. She may even be much better than we know because we haven’t seen 615 hours and 18 minutes of footage. They’ve created an image that is not real, and they’ve made us love or hate their characters by their editing.

I think what bothers me most about the reality shows is how the contestants are always so sure of themselves. They have this haughty, better-than-everyone-else attitude. Now, I understand that in a competition, the contestants must be confident of their ability to succeed, and who doesn’t want to win? What isn’t necessary is the way they talk against the other contestants, especially when they are in danger of being kicked off the show. Some speak to their own failure and they promise to do better, with an acknowledgement that they have more talent than it appeared that day. Others, however, only point out the failures of the other competitors insisting, no matter how terrible they were; they insist that they are the best choice to win. I would pick humble over arrogant every time. Unfortunately, we all know that they don’t always make for good television, and it is the arrogant that gets through for another chance.

Things are much different in the Kingdom of God. Or at least it should be.

As Christians, we live in 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.

I have to laugh when watching those reality shows because you can sometimes figure out who is going home by the way they’ve edited the footage. When a contestant talks about this being their day to shine, the reality is that they end up failing miserably. When they say that they are going to win a challenge, they come up with the worst presentation. At the height of their arrogance, they are often humiliated.

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. S o 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.

Jesus says, “Don’t sit at the head of the table. Sit instead in the lowly seat. When the host sees you there, he will raise you to a better place. But if you go to the head of the table to start, you may be humiliated and moved to a lower seat when someone greater comes along.”

Here’s the problem with human nature: when we see ourselves as better than others, we are unable to see that they are good at what they do, too. Like the reality show contestants, we get stuck in the idea that we are better than the other guy and we miss the opportunities to help them grow and be better. We want to win, and we think we are the ones who should win, so we ignore the possibilities and opportunities to help others. When we sit on the lowly seat, we can see the other guests even while looking at the King, but if we sit next to the King, we can’t see those behind us without looking away from Him.

The psalmist writes, “Jehovah, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty; neither do I exercise myself in great matters, Or in things too wonderful for me.” How many of us look for the big impact without realizing the impact those small actions have on others. Take, for instance, the guy who needs a job, but refuses to work in the mail room because it is below him. He has graduated with a degree and deserves something higher. Some even think they deserve a place in an executive suite without even taking the time to learn what it is like to work in a cubicle. Those people who rush or a rushed through the corporate ladder never learn how to deal with those who remain on a bottom rung. But the guy who humbly accepts the lesser job quickly learns how to rise. With both the education and experience, the humble person who works hard and does his job well will be noticed.

None of us are ‘too good’ for the lowly work of this world and we are not better than those whom we serve. It might seem so, sometimes, and there is perhaps no better example than the work that is done in prisons. It is easy to look down at those who have been convicted and imprisoned, especially when our lives seem so righteous. Even if we willingly give our time and our resources, we still think that we are better than they are.

Now, most of the people who are in prison deserve to be there because they have harmed others. But are we really any better in the Kingdom of God? Our sins are different, but we, too are sinners in need of a Savior. We have failed to be everything God created us to be. We have failed to do the things He has called us to do. We have hurt others in too many ways. We may not deserve to be in a prison made of stone and iron, but we do deserve a harsher sentence: eternity in hell.

The writer of Hebrews says, “Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them; them that are illtreated, as being yourselves also in the body.” This was written to a community that was dealing with imprisonment for their faith. Though many have suggested otherwise, some think that the book of Hebrews was written by Paul, who spent many years in prison. Whether it was Paul or not, there were likely few Christians who did not know someone who spent time behind bars; they knew the dangers of faith. Paul did not consider his imprisonment a time to hide or stop ministering. He preached to the other prisoners. He preached to his captors. He wrote letters of encouragement to the churches. He didn’t preach to auditoriums filled with thousands of people, but he’s had a huge impact on the world.

We know the great things Paul did from the scriptures and the writings of the early church fathers, and yet I wonder if we would recognize him in today’s world. He wrote a few letters. He gathered with a few people and shared the Good News of Jesus. Someone asked recently on a forum I visit how many people were part of the congregation at Corinth. Though we are not sure, one person suggested that it was probably no more than fifty. In today’s world, a church of fifty members is seen as an evangelistic failure. Through it all, Paul did not think himself to be better than others. As a matter of fact, if he had any arrogance at all, it was in his humble understanding that he was the worst of sinners because he had persecuted the Church. He knew he was a failure, but he also knew that he was saved.

If we act as if we are holier-than-thou, and place ourselves at the right hand of God, we might just find ourselves humbled and lowered to that place where we belong. If we humble ourselves and live in service to others, we will find that the reward is greater than any worldly greatness. It might seem as though we will be blessed as we climb that corporate ladder, but we see in Jesus a life of sacrifice that was far more of a blessing. His was one life and one death, and yet that one resurrection has saved the world.

We think we can do more if we think big, but we can have an incredible impact with the small acts of kindness. Imagine how much you can help someone with a letter of encouragement or a brief moment of prayer. We might think that a few cans of food are no big deal, but for the mother whose children are hungry, those cans can mean a day without worry. Every pastor knows that even though his name is on the sign, it is the church secretary, janitor and volunteers that really make it work. We don’t have to strive to be great to have an impact on the world. We simply strive to be what God has created us to be, and the world will be blessed. He doesn’t call us to start great and powerful ministries; He calls us to give the little ones a cup of water.

The scriptures for today consist of a number of random thoughts. Each would make a powerful sermon. In the passage from Proverbs, the writer tells us that God’s glory is in what is hidden, but kings’ glory is in the search for God. We might know that heaven and hell are far from us, but we can’t know what’s in the heart of a king. Silver must be refined, for it is in the silver without the dross that we’ll have something precious, so too a king must be cleansed of wickedness to be righteous. The rest of the passage talks about our humility before the king, remembering to take the lowly place and to deal with our neighbors privately.

The writer of Hebrews talks about being a good host, because in doing so we might actually entertain angels. We should seek justice, live honorably and chaste, avoid greed, be obedient to those who have been chosen to lead us, do good and share our resources with others.

The Gospel lesson tells the story of a dinner Jesus had with some Pharisees. In it, Jesus heals a man, and though they were watching Him closely, they could not argue with His questions. There was no reason He could not heal the man on the Sabbath, because they would save their sons or the oxen if one fell into a well on a Sabbath. And then He told them the parable of those who seek the high places and reminds them to invite those who cannot return the favor. 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.

That’s what it is all about, trusting in God. We do not need to make ourselves better, but instead rejoice in God’s salvation and share it with others. The writer of Hebrews reminds us that even in death, Jesus was humble and obedient. He didn’t seek glory on the cross, or try to make his death something spectacular. Imagine the impact He would have had if He’d actually been sacrificed on the altar as the true Lamb of God sin offering. Instead, He was hung on a cross outside the city, a scapegoat for the rest of us. Because His death was outside the camp, we can partake in His life and enjoy the bounty of His grace. His humble action made it possible for us to share in both His death and His eternal life.

Just as Christ was a humble servant for the people to whom He was sent, we are called to live in faith and share the message of forgiveness and freedom from our burdens with the world. By living a life of humble action, giving to others and sharing God’s grace, we may not end up with fame or fortune or have a huge impact on our world, but we will bless those see God glorified in our life and we will share in that blessing.

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