8/28/16: Living Ourselves Into Faith, Luke 14:1, 7-14
Living Ourselves Into Faith
First Lesson: Proverbs 25:6-7a
Second Lesson: Luke 14:1, 7-14
We were nearing the end of the elaborate boarding ritual, on a flight between Washington, DC and Atlanta, earlier this week. Most everyone had found their seat and were setting in, when the captain came on the intercom to say, “Hello, and welcome to this flight,” and all the details on arrival time, weather conditions and what have you. And then he said that he wanted to send a special word of thanks to a delightful little girl named Sophia who had requested to come and see the cockpit with her parents—we’d seen her come back through the aisle; maybe about 6 years old. She’d told the captain that she wanted to be a pilot someday, which had touched him, but went on to say, that is, until she would go on to be something even better.
The place of honor is a precarious place indeed, especially when it comes to children.
We’re told that Jesus is dining at the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, and they are watching him closely.
And Jesus, it turns out, is watching them closely, too. He notices how the guests choose their seats, how the each vie for the place of honor at the table, which in ancient times would have been nearest the head of the table by the host. Jesus sees them angling in the way, and so he gives them a bit of good, practical wisdom. He tells them, Listen, when you’re invited to a fancy party—let’s say a wedding banquet—don’t sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited, so the host who invited you both won’t come up to you and ask you to move.
Hi, so glad you could make it! Listen, I hate to do this, but we had this seat reserved for someone else—Iknow, how embarrassing for you! Oh yes, we saved you a seat, all the way back there.
You don’t want that to happen.
Jesus tells them, Instead, go and take the lowest place, so that the host might come and ask you to move up higher and you’ll be honored in the presence of all at the table with you.
So glad you could make it! Listen, we saved a spot for you up at the table with us!
“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted,” we’re told.
And on one level, an important level, this is good, practical wisdom—in fact, you could interpret it as shrewd wisdom: Jesus giving tips on how to “win friends and influence people.” Don’t go for the place of prominence, go much lower and then wait to be invited up—this could come straight out of some leadership-strategy book for ambitious young professionals.
How to play the game but play it smarter. (1) We might be tempted to read it this way, but then Jesus continues.
He says, And when you give a luncheon or a dinner, don’t invite your friends and relatives and rich neighbors who might one day pay you back. But invite the people who could never repay you. For you will be repaid in the resurrection of the righteous.
This isn’t a message of “play the game, just play it smarter,” this is a message of “don’t play the game at all.” Sit this game out. Don’t play the game of angling for relationships, or climbing the social ladder. Don’t angle, don’t reach, don’t climb. Don’t play this game which requires you to compare yourself to others—don’t play that game, that would turn people into chess pieces. Sit that game out. When it’s up to other people where you sit, just go to the bottom; have them put you where they think you belong. And if it’s up to you, still choose the bottom. There is no game here. The humility that Jesus embodied wasn’t strategic humility. It was true humility. It was humility designed to take him no where but the cross. And this is something we’re still learning.
Too often we think of discipleship as a means to an ends: become aChristian so you can get into heaven, or more often, so you won’t go to hell. Be a Christian so you can live in the satisfaction of believing you are eternally right and everyone else is just varying degrees of wrong—so you can bask in the warm blanket of self-satisfaction. This is not the way of Jesus. This is not the way of the cross. Despite the transactional terms we often use to describe it, the cross is not a means to an ends. It was an end in and of itself. It was because Jesus accepted this fate without view of gain that God raised him from the dead. As Fred Craddock puts it, the tomb where Jesus’ body lay was a cave, not a tunnel. (2) There was nothing strategic about it.
This wedding banquet wisdom isn’t strategy, it’s discipleship. This isn’t a lesson in how to get ahead in life, it’s a lesson in how to live. To put it even more bluntly, this lesson in humility is really just a lesson in how to be humble. And the key, it turns out, is to do humble things. The same is true of being generous—it turns out all it takes is making a habit of giving generously. Or being loving and kind: just be loving and kind. If this sounds simple, good; it should.
Too often we think of faith or discipleship as matters of the head. We have to first get our minds straight and our thoughts properly ordered and then we’ll be properly prepared to start living right. First wrap your head around the Trinity, the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Jesus and how the dead in Christ shall rise, know exactly how to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and body and your neighbor as yourself—and your enemies too, while you’re at it. Get all of these things sorted out in your head first, and then you could really commit; then you could really take up your cross and follow after Jesus—no, no, no. This isn’t how it works.
Discipleship isn’t about ordering your thoughts or your beliefs and expecting your heart and your life to fall in line. Discipleship is about doing first, experiencing, living, feeling, and from there coming to one day know. As it’s been put by many before, too often we think discipleship is about thinking ourselves into new ways of living, when it’s really about living ourselves into new ways of thinking.
Thinking, or believing, is certainly part of faith: believing certain things about God and Jesus and the Kingdom, but even more about yourself and the world—who you are and what you’re called to do. Belief is an important step in the journey of faith. But we’re wrong if we thing it’s the fist step, or even the most important step. It’s much more often that faith proceeds from action than action proceeds from faith.
It sounds backwards, but it’s not. This is how we learn. Many of us who grew up in church began learning how to be a Christian—the rhythms and motions—long before we ever formally became one. Or maybe you’re learning right now. We learn how it feels to come to church on Sunday to be among God’s people, even on the days when there seem to be a thousand reasons not to. We learn what do once we got there: we learn the hymns and how to use a hymnal, when to stand when to sit, when to bow our heads. We learn the books of the Bible and maybe even the Lord’s Prayer. We learn to bring our offering each week, say our prayers at night and before meals, and to reach out to people in need, to think of ourselves less and others more. Hopefully we learn something of what it looks like to love God with all your heart, mind soul and strength before we’re old enough to realize how hard it is. Hopefully we even witness resurrection a time or two before we we’re told how impossible it is.
Most of us learn how to live like a Christian long before we walk down the aisle and become one. You learn action before belief, you learn how to live “as if” you’re a person of faith in the hope that by learning these actions, finding these rhythms, that one day, belief or faith will come. One of the oldest descriptions of theology is “faith seeking understanding.” Discipleship has always been a matter of living as if you have faith, trusting that faith comes in the doing. And really, not just in the doing, but in the imitation. We learn how to be a person of faith by imitating faithful people. We see a faithful person, and how there’s something about them and so we do as they do.
And this is how it’s been since Jesus called to his would-be disciples and said: Come and follow me. He didn’t mean simply go where I go, but go as I go. Do what I do. Come and walk with me, but also, come and walk like me. He didn’t just tell them, go and be with the lowly, he went and was with the lowly. He didn’t just tell them, opt out of the games the world will play, the angling, the climbing, the constant comparison, he showed them another way. He didn’t just tell them, take up your cross and follow me, he took up his own. He never asked them to do anything he didn’t do himself and do to completion.
Each of us first learns not just by doing, but by imitating. You learn this quickly as a parent. Billy is at that stage where he’s like a sponge and every now and again, he gives it a squeeze and all that we’ve said and done in his presence comes back at us. It will keep you humble, and honest. But it’s not always so bad. When I hear him comfort his brother with the same words I use to comfort him: It’s okay, Buddy, I’m right here. Or in between his own tears when he fall, when he says to himself, It hurts now but it won’t hurt for long.
We have a small yard and so I just use one of these old-time lawnmowers without a motor that you just push and the blades spin and cut the grass. And one of the things I like about it is that it’s quiet and I can have the boys out there with me. But recently they’ve wanted to help, and so it happens that we have two little toy lawn mowers and I’ll tell them to come outside and help me mow the grass, and they grab their lawn mowers and follow me out there—Billy following me and Sidney following his big brother. And I’ll begin going in rows up and down the front yard and see them on the other side doing the same, Billy and then Sid keeping up with him. And I’ll see out of the corner of my eye how they keep they’re watching me and trying to do it just right.
This is how discipleship works. We keep our eyes on another, following as best we can, learning the moves, seeing how it’s done, trusting that one day down the road, in ways we can’t explain and aren’t fully aware, as a friend of mine put it to me recently, we will slowly become “the person we once only pretended to be.” (3)
The secret to discipleship is that there’s no secret. No mystery to unearth, no great wisdom to understand. There’s no hidden agenda to the life Jesus calls us to lead. Be humble. Be generous. Be kind. Look out for the least among you. Go and be with them. Don’t play the world’s games of who’s who and who’s not. Trust that there’s a different way, but the only way to truly know it is by walking it. And ever so slowly, day by day, step by step, row by row, and table by table, we will come to resemble more and more the person we once only pretended to be.
And by some great mystery of faith, we’ll discover that the person we’ve become is the person who God intended us to be all along. Amen.
(1) R. Alan Culpepper, The Gospel of Luke, The Interpreter’s Commentary, 286-287.
(2) Fred Craddock, Philippians, Interpretation Series, 42
(3) Thanks to dear friend and wordsmith, Alan Sherouse, pastor of FBC Greensboro, NC.