Emmanuel Lutheran Church
Menominee - Michigan
Luke 14:1, 7-14
15th Sunday after Pentecost
August 28, 2016
Grace and Peace to you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
During my seminary internship experience at St. Luke Lutheran Church in Fort Smith, Arkansas, I was invited to be part of a rotation of pastors who took turns preaching at the city’s homeless shelter on Sunday afternoons. The week that I was scheduled to lead worship and preach there I picked out specific texts for that worship service in that particular setting. I prepared a sermon that was certain to personally speak to each and every one of my hearers.
And I showed up there and I preached it. Oh, I preached it, baby. Down there in Baptist and Pentecostal country, where preachers aren’t afraid to get excited and to pour on the fire and brimstone with an energetic fervor, I took that same impassioned energy and reminded these poor, lonely outcasts that there was hope for them. I was like their Moses, man; I was going to lead them out of their imprisoned lives into a land flowing with milk and honey.
But Moses got sidetracked. Something funny happened. After the service as I was shaking hands with these homeless persons before they departed back to the other areas of the shelter, I noticed that there was a group of four people who were standing together, staying back, clearly waiting for an opportunity to talk to me after everybody else had left.
So when everybody else was gone and had thanked me for being there, this group of residents made their way over to me. Now, I was figuring that they were going to ask me for a special prayer or guidance, or something to that effect. But I was wrong. I was very much wrong.
As a group, they approached me and said, in very blunt and honest fashion: “Thank you for being here with us today, but you know, you don’t have to try so hard. We’re going to be alright.” And then, one by one, each of these homeless shelter residents openly shared with me their story, not only of how they ended up in this situation, but how they were anticipating leaving it and resuming their lives before they had been temporarily interrupted in their homelessness.
It was such a humbling wake-up call for a very green preacher in that I had assumed the position of being the more favored person who needed to be their savior. But they reminded me that they already had a savior. What I did was talk down to them and they didn’t need somebody to do that; they needed somebody to simply join them and walk with them on their current journey.
They were inviting me to join them in a walk with Christ that was certainly much more humble than the walk that I was walking. And, in the process, they made me aware that although I may have had more worldly and material goods than any one of them did at that moment in time, that spiritually, I was as poor as they come. In fact, spiritually, I was poorer than poor.
Am I still that spiritually poor yet today? Possibly. I assume that I am; but I don’t really know, that’s not for me to decide; but what I do know is that at least there’s an awareness of it now on my part.
And I think that’s what’s important for all of us to be in tune with. For a moment, think about our current social landscape. We hear and read terms every day like “white privilege,” “black lives matter,” and “racial profiling,” and immediately when these phrases cross our radar, many people will take on a defensive posture. We assume our place on the spectrum of humanity and we dig our feet in and we take a stand. We defend whom we are, what we have, where we stand; and all who agree with us are invited to stand with us.
But, that’s not what Jesus wants us to do, is it? In fact, Jesus wants us to drop any and all defensive approaches. First, he tells us that we are to assume the lowest place at the table and wait to be called up to a seat of higher honor. I think that most of us are ok with that. I think that we as Christians understand and embrace our call to be servants. Every Sunday that offering plate passes by us and we put our offering into it and we turn it over to the church and trust that the church will utilize that money in such a way that it pleases God. We take up special offerings. Beginning today, we are collecting health and hygiene products to be packaged and distributed to our area schools for kids in need of these most basic necessities. We know what it’s like to assume to be the servant and we are nourished and fed in that role of serving. We are so good at that.
But today, Jesus takes this command one step further. “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you will be repaid.” Jesus speaks of societal niceties here; obligations that we make to one another.
And in a sense he’s right. I mean, what’s the point of giving money to people that already have money? I couldn’t tell you how many times I have bought Christmas or birthday presents for loved ones simply because I felt that I had to get them something. They may not have needed it. They probably didn’t even want it. But there’s a social obligation there to make sure that there’s something there saying that it has come from me. And now you give me something in return.
But it’s how Jesus finishes this that really grabs hold of us, and, if we receive it with the meaning that Jesus speaks it, it’s going to make us squirm: “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Jesus is telling us not only to serve those whom we see as being in need, but actually assuming our place among them. Assume the place of the poor. As I learned, assume the place of the homeless. Assume the place of the outcast, the prostitute, the imprisoned, the person who is chemically dependent. As an almost exclusive white congregation, we are invited to drop our white privilege defense and to assume the place of the black man. Walk in his shoes for a few minutes before you pass an arms-length judgment on him.
There is no doubt whatsoever that what Jesus is asking us to do here is going to make every one of us uncomfortable. Not because we fear these people who we are asked to assume our place among them, or even fear becoming them; but the very real fear that we carry is that we will lose what we already have. We fear losing our elevated status.
True story. A teenage boy from New York City was walking from the bus depot to his father’s apartment in upper Manhattan when, suddenly, he was flanked by two young men who pulled a gun on him and demanded he give them his wallet.
He said, “No.” They repeatedly demanded that he give them his wallet. And each time he said, “No.” The robbers finally gave up. Afterward, when asked why he didn’t give them his wallet, he replied, “My learner’s permit is in it.”
We are so often like this young man that we stubbornly refuse, even at great danger to ourselves, to give up what we have because we fear that we’ll never have it again. But Jesus reminds us that whatever we give up now, we will be given back in the resurrection. And if we still stubbornly refuse to fully humble ourselves, we look to Jesus, who gave up His elevated status with the Father and the Holy Spirit and assumed his role as a human being, just like us. And He not only assumed our human status, but He even took it a step further and assumed all our sin upon him. Every last sin of every last person. The sins of the royal, of the rich, of the white collar, the blue collar, the surburbanite, the apartment dweller, the homeless, the black person, the white one, the righteous one, and the one who couldn’t care less. Wherever we place ourselves on that spectrum, Jesus willingly gave up his elevated status, just so we could maintain our place on it.
And our response to his sacrifice is so simple. Humbly assume the role of the lowest sinner. Acknowledge that we are the sinners who cannot save ourselves, who don’t deserve to be saved, and who need Jesus to do it for us. And when we assume that place and Jesus does forgive us every last one of our sins, because He wants nothing more than for us to have a clean slate, and He invites us to come forward, to come forward and to respond with joy and gratitude and adulation; and to live in the promise of the resurrection, where we will be elevated to the finest seat and served the bounteous meal that fills us eternally. Amen.