August 29, 2010
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
As a child growing up in the South, I can remember great emphasis being put upon one’s proper deportment and the display of suitable manners. Mothers often admonished their young with variations on such phrases as “Don’t be puttin’ on airs now, you hear me!?” or “Remember your raising!” or “You’re getting a little big for your britches there Missy!” We were taught to respect our elders, to be seen rather than heard when in the company of adults, and to mind our manners at the table. Several of my friends and I were even subjected to a charm course entitled “White Gloves and Party Manners,” entailing a variety of basic etiquette lessons such as how to curtsy and make a proper entrance into a room on the arm of a young gentleman. At age 10 we all thought that was pretty yucky!
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus has considerably more on his mind than social etiquette, acceptable behavior, and party manners. Instead of supporting and adhering to the rigid codes of honor and shame, our Lord was once again in the business of shaking things up and leveling the playing field in order that all folks might have a place at the table.
Notice how the good leaders are watching him at this fancy Sabbath meal. The event seems less about celebrating a feast of delicious food, the abundance of God, and good company and more about keeping the social register in proper order. Jesus, of course, will have none of this and proceeds to tell a story–a story with bite, that is.
The story still has bite today, so watch out! While the culture of honor and shame manifests itself somewhat differently in contemporary North America, it is still very much present present thanks to advertising and marketing. We’re constantly told we need to upgrade, buy the right products, wear the “in” labels, drive the “cool” cars, and live in the best neighborhoods. We still strive for “places” of honor and permission to run with the right crowd, constantly seeking to better our situation.
I’m not so sure our worshipping communities are any different. There are, for example, in almost any city or town the “right” churches to which one should belong. Certain positions and committees are more prized than other ones. Oh, and don’t forget the unmarked but nonetheless “reserved” pews.
As preachers, teachers, and congregational leaders, we are invited to ask hard questions of ourselves about this reading from Luke’s gospel, and for that matter, the other lectionary selections this week. Depending on where your congregation is poised in its lifecycle, context, and social climate, you may find this Sunday to be an excellent opportunity for a prophetic word. All too often this gospel passage is gussied up without the bright light of self-examination that allows Jesus’ words to discomfort us. What are the tough questions that bubble to the surface in your particular context?
Maybe we should ponder who is not invited to our table. Are the people who come to our food pantries, lunch programs, and parish schools equally welcome on Sunday morning? Are we looking simply to fill pews and parish registers or to make room for everyone as full participants at the feast? Are our unwavering certainty, moral rectitude, and inflexible faith setting up insurmountable barriers to outsiders looking in? Should we open our arms to those who are different from us no matter what the personal cost? Just what does it mean to be blessed in response to these words? Finally, are we “puttin’ on airs” as 21st century Christians?
Whatever questions need to be raised in your particular setting, I pray that we are honest and brave enough to do the tough job of asking, of thinking, and of loving each other enough to do so. Yes, there is law to be confronted, but grace waits on the other side. Blessings on your proclamation and teaching!