Archive for August, 2010

God’s Maitre-D’s

Sunday, August 29th, 2010

This scripture reading never fails to remind me of an advice column.  Do you ever read “Dear Abby” in the Daily Progress, or similar ones?

Today’s story might read something like this:

Dear Abby,

When my friend gives a dinner party, I never know where to sit! I’m afraid I might get stuck next to someone boring.  Help!

Signed, Confused.

Dear Confused: “If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face!  So sit down with the “boring” people and talk to them politely.  Then your hostess may say, “Hey, come sit next to me!” That will give the other dinner guests something to talk about!”


Jesus’advice is good etiquette indeed—wouldn’t you just die if you accidentally sat down in the guest of honor’s seat at a banquet?—but of course his words have many deeper meanings as well.

Jesus was a revolutionary, not an advice columnist.  He made it a point to confront the conventions of his day, not to enforce them.  In this teaching, he’s challenging the whole scheme of honor and shame that was at the root of ancient society.   In that system, honor, like food, was scarce; in finite supply.  If you didn’t have honor, you had shame.

Only the wealthy had enough extra food to give dinner parties, and they were more like public relations events than a meeting of friends.  Rich people came to feasts to see and be seen.

In making guest lists, hosts concentrated on inviting those who would enhance their status.  By the way, that custom hasn’t really changed much.  A few years ago, Paris Hilton could get $1000 just for showing up at someone’s party for a few minutes.  I don’t know if she’s that valuable nowadays, but I’m sure the practice continues with whomever is the hottest property.

In the Roman style of reclining to eat, couches were arranged in a U-shape called a triclinium.  VIPs got to sit on the inside of the U; lesser people with less honor sat on the outside.

Jews, who generally had less status and smaller houses, arranged the places from high to low.  The service as well as the places was different, at both Jewish and Roman feasts; people with more honor were given better quality food and wine, and so on down the table.

Jesus says, “Take the lowest seat; then you will be invited to move up.”  Where have we heard that before?

Jesus was always telling his disciples, “The last shall be first.”    He’s referring to the heavenly banquet at the end of time; that celebration where God the Creator will make all things right.  The Greek word for honor that Luke uses here also means glory.  Earthly celebrity or honor is not heavenly glory, because God’s ways are not our ways.  God will exalt and reward the humble.

In our individually-oriented, instant- gratification North American society, honor and shame are not as important as they are in land-based cultures.  We may honor our celebrities and rich people, but shame as a cultural value no longer has the power it used to.  But in the Two-Thirds world where poverty reigns, as well as in other developed countries like Japan, the family unit, village or cultural group is more important than the individual, and the honor/shame dichotomy is very much alive.

We in the West tend to focus more on the individual values of pride and humility; or perhaps self-esteem and false humility, so that’s the meaning we can take from this parable.

What does it mean to be humble?  You may remember Dicken’s character Uriah Heep, who never failed to remind people just how humble he was.  That kind of self-focus isn’t really humility, no matter how much you say, “I’m just a humble person!”

Or some of you may have old tapes playing in your head, voices from the past that say, “You’re no good, How clumsy! You’re not really smart; Who do you think you are?”

Some of those limiting messages come from social expectations; others from our family or ourselves.  For instance, I was raised in the pre-women’s liberation world, by a Southern mother who trained me to deflect any compliment and never to describe myself or anything of mine in prideful terms.  When someone compliments you on your new dress, for instance, you are expected to say, “What,  this old rag?”

I know people who continue to do this today—I was just talking to a friend who loves my sons; and I think hers are pretty special, too.  But every time I would praise them, she would deflect my remark and talk about what problems they had and how mine are much better.

My mother in turn was raised in an era in which child-raising books admonished parents to deliberately attack pride in their children by making them focus on the negative in themselves rather than the positive.

For example, if your daughter has a new dress and thinks she looks pretty, remind her that she didn’t polish her shoes!

The things we do to our children in the name of making them “better people!”

There’s a Pennsylvania Dutch expression I learned when I was pastoring in a UCC church in York County-“Never put yourself forward.”  I imagine there’s a Southern variant of that too.  The interesting thing about that expression, it got to be a really handy excuse whenever I asked someone, especially a woman, to take office in the church.

None of this is true humility.  Those old whispers in your head range from internalized verbal abuse or societal put-downs to false humility.

Humility does not mean putting yourself down, or letting others put you down.  Humility does not require you to step back and let others hold office or take risks.

The word humility comes from the Latin for earth, humus.  It simply means being down-to earth; keeping it real; being genuine.  To be real, to be humble, we also have to recognize our true giftedness; our God-given talents and abilities and good qualities.

Make a promise to yourself to treat yourself as well as you treat others.  You’d never say to another person, “What a stupid thing to do!” so don’t say it to yourself either.  And this applies to our children as well.  Teach them to believe in themselves and have confidence in their abilities—not always telling them that each art project is the best ever, perfect and wonderful, because then they won’t learn to trust their own judgment.  But praise their good choices and notice what they do, and they’ll grow up with true humility instead of false.

God has no use for false humility any more than God wants us to be excessively prideful.  God wants disciples, not wallflowers and not know-it-alls.  Humility means living with gratitude, with the full knowledge that all good gifts, including our own wisdom and abilities, come from God.  When we are humble, we recognize that we haven’t earned God’s grace; it is a pure, generous gift.  And when we live humbly, we want to share that grace and generosity in the service of others.

Humble service is very much a part of life together as a church.  People labor unseen to fix and clean the building; to work on the website; to serve on committees and social justice groups; to make coffee and organize greeters; to pay the bills and count the money.   There is always more help needed there, and I pray that more of you will choose to serve God and your church in those ways.

There is also serving the poor at PACEM winter shelter for the homeless, picking up trash on the street, or carrying boxes of books to Quest to be given to prisoners.  Social justice ministries are vital to this church.  But besides church service for the good of the order, and social justice service for the good of the world, we all have a very important, underlying task: welcoming others to God’s heavenly banquet, both here and in our daily lives.

There is room for all of us at God’s heavenly banquet, but the poor, the hungry, the excluded–they get to sit down first.  The guests of honor in God’s kingdom are those who trusted, not in money or pride or power or celebrity, but in God’s love and providence, because that was all they had.

Until God’s heavenly dinner party takes place, we are God’s stand-ins.  We offer people who don’t know God a little taste of God’s amazing love.

ou could even call us God’s maitre-d’s, welcoming others to a preview of the heavenly banquet, and making sure they are served well.  How do you think we rate? Is our worship service a foretaste of the heavenly banquet? Does a first time visitor feel connected to God by our music and our prayers?

How about munch bunch?  Do all feel  welcome into the conversations? How would a differently-abled person feel about this facility?

Who’s not here now who needs to be here?  Who is our neighbor?  Who will you invite to the feast, and how will you make them comfortable, especially if they are different from you?  And once they have visited this church more than once, how will you work to see that they are incorporated into this Beloved Community?

These are good questions to ponder as you pray for a vision, God’s plan for Sojourners over the next few years.  This vision will reveal the ways that you are called to serve God and neighbor with humble and faithful hearts.   Once you center in on that vision, you will know exactly which pastor is the right one to walk with you into that future.    As you pray, study and converse, know that God is always with you.  God is ever at work, leading the way.  You just have to listen, trust, and follow.   Thanks be to God.