Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17C), September 1, 2013. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.

Proverbs 25:6-7Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Psalm 25:6-7Luke 14:1,7-14

“Friend, move up higher”

I can’t think of another occasion in the lectionary when the first reading is so short – just a single sentence.  It comes from the Book of Proverbs, a collection of sayings that was traditionally attributed to King Solomon because of his legendary wisdom.  Since its advice is so succinct, and since it connects so clearly with today’s Gospel, let’s hear it again: “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great, for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble” (Proverbs 25:6-7). 

Listening to this admonition on Labor Day weekend, as we mark the unofficial end of summer, makes me think of the start of summer, when my family and I spent a week at a lake in New Hampshire. Every year our extended family comes to New Hampshire to visit a particular family camp, and we enjoy having a chance to swim, hike, and generally relax.  No one in my family will argue with me when I tell you that I’m not much of a cook, and for me one of the great pleasures of attending this camp is eating meals in the dining-hall, where for once someone else is the chef!  But here is the main thing.  Tables in the camp’s dining-hall are assigned according to a system of ranking that is based on how many years you’ve been coming.  The most coveted spots are tables by the windows, where diners enjoy a breeze, a view of the lake, and maybe the envy of other families.  By contrast, tables near the dessert tray are the least desirable places to sit, because there you are subjected to the noise and pressure of kids pushing past you as they make their eager way to the ice cream.  In between are the middling tables, which are ranked as more or less desirable according to their relative convenience, quiet, and lakeshore views.  Week by week the headwaiter works out which family will sit where, and keeps track year by year of everyone’s progress away from the dessert trays.  Presumably the goal is to work your way up until you, too, have earned the place of honor: a table by the window.

Assigning tables on the basis of seniority is one way to handle the human tendency to scramble for the best seats in the house.  We all know the struggle to be recognized, honored, and admired, to get ahead, to seek our own glory and satisfaction.  We feel the lure, in the words of today’s reading, to “put [ourselves] forward” and to “stand in the place of the great.”  Much of contemporary society encourages us to promote the individual self over the common good, and, in the face of every choice, to ask ourselves: “What’s in it for me?”  “How can I prove myself, promote myself, and show myself to the best advantage?” It is the urgent need to be recognized and valued that drives us to make a bee-line for the seats of honor, jealously to guard whatever rank and position we’ve managed to attain, and to look down from our small eminence on the unfortunate people stuck in the seats below, who presumably lack our wit or wealth or talent or knowledge or training or connections, or who simply haven’t been coming to camp as long as we have.

Everyone needs to be valued, but when we claim a place in the sun at the expense of other people, our perch is precarious.  As Jesus points out in today’s Gospel passage from Luke, when we clamber over others to grab the seat of honor for ourselves, it won’t be long before the host comes along to send us down to the lowest table.  It is a rhythm of our spiritual lives that happens again and again: whenever we proudly hold ourselves apart from other people, claiming for one reason or another that we are better than they are – our theology is better! Our politics are better! Our kids are better!  Our resume is better!  Our obituary will be better! –  God finds a way to burst the bubble and to deflate our pride. In the kingdom of God, there is no place, and no need, for self-seeking.

Here’s an example from my own life.  Back in 1994 I was riveted to the television as the O.J. Simpson murder trial played out in court.  As you may remember, he was tried for two counts of murder following the deaths of his ex-wife and her friend.  The case captured media attention, and has been called “the most publicized criminal trial in American history.”1  Like many Americans, I had a strong opinion about the case, and I was among those who were convinced that Simpson was guilty.  I wanted him convicted and I wanted him in prison.  But more than that – I felt a malicious excitement, a vindictive thrill, as I watched the trial go forward and as I waited impatiently for him to get what I considered his just desserts.  I felt vengeful pleasure as I watched him squirm.  I was better than he was – I was superior, righteous, innocent.

And then one night I had a dream.  (It’s interesting how dreams can be a source of wisdom!) I dreamed that I casually told someone that I wanted a couple of people killed.  The person carried out my request, and returned to report that the murders had been done.  In the dream I felt no remorse, no guilt, no shame, just a surge of self-protective worry.  Would I get away with the murders?  Would I get caught? Would my bishop find out?  In the dream I didn’t care about the people who had died.  I wanted only to save my own skin. 

When I woke up, I felt a pang of shock and sorrow.  One thing was clear: I needed to pray for O.J. Simpson, and I needed to pray for myself.  I had been visited by a dream that punctured my pride, and showed me that everything that I thought I saw in him – the casual violence, the capacity to kill, the failure to feel remorse, the desire at all costs to save his neck and reputation – was also in me.  On a human level, we might be very different people, but on a soul level, we were basically alike: both of us sinners who failed to live up to the love that made us and that gave everything for us.  I still believed that Simpson was guilty and I still wanted him convicted, but the thrill was gone.  I could no longer watch his trial with self-righteous glee, for in contemplating his guilt, I also saw my own.

Pride tells me to claim the head table for myself, but God, in infinite mercy, sends me back down to the lowest table.

Pride tells me to pretend to be purer than I am, better than I am, other than I am.  God tells me to accept the truth: like everyone else, I am an inextricable mixture of darkness and light, capable of both kindness and cruelty, of both tenderness and malice.  I am not just my idealized self, my “best” self; I am also my “shadow” self, the parts of myself that I want to push away and to project onto other people.

Pride tells me to separate myself from the lowly, the outcast, and the criminal.  God tells me to discover my union with them.

Pride tells me to justify myself by criticizing and condemning other people.  God tells me that nothing human is alien to me, that everything I see outside me is within me, as well.

Pride tells me that there is a shortage of love in the world, and that if I don’t make it to the top, I will lose, I will be left, I will be alone.  God tells me that love is infinite, and that I will taste the sweetness of that love in all its fullness only when I understand that ultimately I am not separate from anyone or anything.

Pride tells me that I must forever earn and deserve and hoard whatever love and recognition I can get.  God tells me that at every moment, all of God’s love is entirely mine – and yours – and ours – no matter who we are or what we’ve done. It’s free, and it’s a gift.

Again and again God gently bursts our bubbles of pride and our impulse to separate ourselves from other people, and deepens the rich soil of humility within which our souls can grow like a vigorous plant.  Isn’t it interesting that the word “humility” is closely related to the word “humus”?  It is in the rich, loamy soil of humility that we are grounded, that human beings come home to our true Selves and discover our union with everyone else and all creation. 

But pride is a tricky thing, and the ego can take Jesus’ parable and turn it into a game of self-seeking way down at the lowest seat at the table.  Pride can turn us into the very paradigm of piety, modesty and unassuming humility – “Oh, I wouldn’t dream of taking not even the lowest seat – no, I’ll just sit here on the floor, thank you, right here in the dirt, no, really don’t trouble about me, I don’t need even a bite to eat, you take the food, eat everything you like, I’ll just wait here, suffering silently, don’t give me a moment’s thought.”  And secretly we’re congratulating ourselves – “What a humble person I am!  Aren’t I selfless and pure and spiritually advanced!” – and essentially claiming the seat of honor.

The surprise, of course, is that there is nothing grim or gloomy or self-hating or secretly self-aggrandizing about true humility.  Do you think that the people in Jesus’ parable who were sitting at the lowest place spent the whole meal picking at their food and hanging their heads in self-hatred, or congratulating themselves on being so holy?  I don’t think so.  As I imagine it, throughout our lives God sends us back to the lowest place, until finally we begin to notice that it is those who can happily sit at the lowest place who are truly free.  They are the ones who are no longer puffed up with pride.  They are the ones who have finally accepted the fact that they are utterly dependent on the grace of God.  They are the ones who claim nothing for themselves and who can then hear the tender words, “Friend, come up higher.”  It is when we are in that place of emptiness and poverty, that place of honest humility, that God in Christ touches us with love and fills us with joy.  Yes, when I awoke from my so-called “O.J. Simpson” dream, I was embarrassed and chastened and ashamed of my self-righteous pride, but in that moment of repentance and of finding myself in the lowest place, I also tasted a quiet joy, the relief of being set free from the desperate, endless tendency to pull myself up by putting someone else down.  There is joy in facing the truth: we are one with all human beings and with the merciful love of God. 

And so I imagine all of us finally coming to laugh and sing at the lowest place at the table.  The hunger in our hearts for status and recognition will have been satisfied at last: we will know that we dwell within the infinite embrace of God, within a circle of love that has no top and no bottom, no first and no last.  “Friend, move up higher,” the Host will say to us, but there will be no “higher”: the first will be last, and the last will be first, and the terms “first” and “last,” and “higher” and “lower,” will no longer have any meaning, for all of us will be drawn into the holy circle of love that invites all of us to the feast and that leaves no one out.    

We taste that feast this morning, as we come together to celebrate the Eucharist.  None of us has earned a place at this table.  None of us has done a thing to deserve to be here.  But we are all invited.  We are all welcome.  We are all loved to the end, whatever our status or lack of status in the world.  What a gift!  The kingdom of God is near.

1. “Confusion for Simpson kids ‘far from over'”, USA Today. February 12, 1997, cited by http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/O._J._Simpson_murder_case (retrieved on 8/31/13).