Sermon manuscript (more or less accurate)

Pentecost 13 or something C
28 August 2016
Luke 14: 1-14ish

In John’s Gospel
Jesus defines himself as the True and Living Way
Or as our translations usually state it:
I am the way, the truth, and the life.
Both of those are valid translations from the Greek
And they can both mean the same thing.

Some people will say that it means
There is no other way to God than through Jesus.
I can get on board with that,
And John seems to bear that out in other places,
But that’s not what I want to focus on today.
It’s a good discussion for another time.

What I DO want to highlight here
Is that Jesus is telling us
That he has an ethic —
A way of behaving in the world.
And as his followers
His disciples
His students
He is the one we’re called to imitate.

We imitate one another all the time,
But that doesn’t do a lot of good
Because our imitation of one another all too often turns to rivalry
Which can lead to resentment and damaged relationships
And even, in extreme cases, to violence and death.

But we’re called to learn from Jesus,
This living and true path
To turn away from imitation of one another
And towards HIM.

Case in point,
The parable Jesus tells in today’s Gospel reading.

When you are invited by anyone to a marriage feast,
do not sit down in a place of honor.

First of all, I should point out this idea of a marriage feast.
When Jesus talks about a marriage feast,
We ought to keep in mind that he’s talking about the kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God is like a marriage feast.
There’s an eschatalogical component to Jesus’ teachings about weddings
And feasts and banquets
And it goes back to Isaiah’s prophecies
Concerning feasts where the poor and hungry will be fed and so on.

Anyway, we should always keep that in the backs of our minds.

But
When you’re invited to a marriage feast
Don’t sit down in a place of honor.

Why?

Lest someone greater be invited to take YOUR seat
And you will be shamed and will be seated at a less honorable place.
That would be awkward, wouldn’t it?

No, when you’re invited, go to the lowest place
So that when the host comes and sees you there,
He’ll say, “No, you move up to a higher place.”
That way you’ll be honored in front of everyone.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t say that you’ll displace someone else,
Causing THAT person DISHONOR or SHAME:
Just that you will be invited to greater honor.

Whoever exalts himself will be humbled
And he who humbles himself will be exalted.

Whoever claims honor for himself will find shame
But those who begin in humility will be honored.

See how Jesus is playing honor and shame off of one another?

We Westerners don’t really understand honor and shame
In the same way that people in other cultures do.
We’re too individualistic to really “get it,”
Because we care less about what THE GROUP
Or the rest of the culture thinks about us,
As long as we have our self-esteem, right?

Haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate.
C’est la vie.

Adolescents probably get shame more than we adults do.
When we’re teenagers, our peers’ opinions matter a LOT,
Which is why so many people despair when bullies
Fat shame them
Or thin shame them
Or slut shame them
Or any permutation of that phenomenon.

It feels like permanent judgment to adolescents
But most of us,
When we get out of high school
Learn to take all that stuff in stride and move on.

That’s what Western society teaches us to do.
And there’s some good in that.

But that’s not the case in the Middle East, for example.
To be moved from a place of honor to a LOWER status
Meant social death.
That’s what THEIR society taught them.
Do this, avoid that, so that you may maintain honor and stay away from shame.

Our imitation of culture in the west teaches us to blow it off
Because the individual is more important than the group.
The imigation of culture in the Middle East
Teaches people to take what the group says seriously
Because the collective is more important than the individual.

Imitation.
Jesus, the living and true way,
Is telling us to learn – not from culture, but from him.
Go to the place of least honor first.
Not because dishonoring ourselves is good,
But because claiming honor for oneself means the dishonoring of others.
It creates rivalry
That can lead to discord and violence.

Take yourselves out of that system
Is what Jesus is telling us.
Go to the bottom of the heap
And you will be exalted.

The last shall be first
And the first shall be last.

Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it.
Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

This is the ethic of God’s Kingdom.
Pour yourself out for the sake of the other.
That’s what Jesus did for us.

He had every right to claim the throne,
But instead he chose the cross.
And in doing so, he was lifted to the Father’s right hand
And given the name above all names.

Take up your cross and follow me, Jesus says.
Not because it’s noble to suffer.
Not because it’s Good to be dishonored.
But because it’s the only way out of human rivalry that threatens to doom our species
And maybe all species on the planet.

As Americans, where do we claim the place of honor?
Most powerful nation on earth?
Maybe.
Once upon a time that was Rome.
Once upon a time that was Britain
And France
And Spain.
Where are they now?

Where else do we claim the place of honor?
In our rights?
I have the RIGHT to free speech.
I can say whatever I want, no matter how much it defames you.
There may be consequences to that, but I have the RIGHT to it!

I have the RIGHT to open carry my sidearm (and to dare and call it a peacemaker)
Even though the presence of this lethal technology might terrify and intimidate you.

I have the RIGHT to sue your ass off for some petty infringement on my liberties,
Even though doing so may bankrupt you and put you on the streets.

Our government has the RIGHT to defend its political and economic interests at home and abroad,
Even if it means a whole lot of “collateral damage.”

I have the RIGHT to an abortion,
Even though it snuffs out a human life,
Even while my neighbors might be suffering from infertility and wanting to share their love with an adopted baby.

(See, I’ll skewer the left as well as the right. Just so you know I’m trying to be “Fair and Balanced.”)

The point is,
We very often insist on our rights
Even when having them upheld means that others will suffer for it.

We’re ALL guilty of taking a seat in the place of honor
When taking a lower place would eliminate the curse of imitative rivalry.

The lowest place Jesus went was to the cross and to the grave,
Although he was God
He did not consider equality with God something to cling to
But rather he emptied himself
Taking the form of a slave
Taking the spot without honor at the table
He EMPTIED himself.
Of honor
Of dignity
Of his RIGHTS.

Let THIS mind be in you
that was also in him.

Amen.

[Inspired primarily by Michael Hardin’s lectionary commentary at Preaching Peace, and by Paul Neucherlein’s commentary on the Girardian Lectionary site.}

Success as a Less Faithful Goal

Last week I went with a friend to a conference in Lee’s Summit, MO. It was fantastic, by the way. The 3 main speakers at this conference (“The Crucified God”) spoke with us from 3 different perspectives about what it means for a community or a person to hold to a theology of the cross (as Luther called it), or a cruciform theology, if you will — however you want to slice it, we’re talking about beginning all theology with the reality that the God we worship … died. Gave himself up to death. By the world’s standards, this looks like failure, like weakness. But the crucified God stands at the very center of our faith.

I may wind up writing about the overall conference at some point in the near future, but today I wanted to focus on one of the break-out sessions that the organizers offered for us. The one I attended had to do with the church growth model we’ve been following for the past 40 years (give or take). Author and pastor Tim Suttle led our session, which he based on his book, Shrink. (Here’s a link to a video overview of the book, in case you’re interested.)

Before I talk about the meat of our session, I wanted to mention a little side remark that Tim made regarding a study of Olympian medal winners’ emotions. In the study, it came to light that Gold Medal winners were the happiest, which makes sense. One would expect Silver Medalists to be the next-happiest, since silver means that they placed second of three, but it turns out that Bronze Medal winners were happier than Silver recipients. Why? In terms of “success,” the silver placers outperformed the bronze placers; however, it seems that the Bronze Medal winners were thankful that they placed, realizing how precarious their victories had been, while the Silver Medal winners focused more on how close they came to getting gold. (Here’s an article in the Washington Post that alludes to the study, and here’s a link to the study itself.) Ah, comparison to the other. Such a treacherous beast, eh?

So, to the session:

Tim was talking about how, for the past 40 or so years, most of our approaches to church growth have been based on business models. We came about it honestly as people like Bill Hybels, Rick Warren and other megachurch pastors took the talents they had been gifted with and tried to apply them for the sake of the church. NB I used a lot of their wisdom back in the days when I worked for not-for-profit museums — especially management strategies that they and folks like John Kotter and Steven Covey offered for us to move from Good to Great and all that jazz.

They base their approach on business models, strategies, and techniques that aimed to bring about success. Bigger, better, faster, more efficient, yadda yadda yadda.

The problem with using these models – these pragmatic models deigned to increasify our effectability and embiggen our impactfulness (yes, I know those aren’t real words, but if you’ve worked in business, you’ll know a lot of the jargon they use aren’t real words, either) — specifically in the Church, well … they’re all models of Empire, aren’t they? The biggest concern is the bottom line, the profit margin, the return on investment, etc. Those are business/Empire values. “Success” charts under those models show a straight line of increase, moving left to right in an upward direction.

In contrast, the Church — the cross-shaped community, gathered around a crucified God — looks different. “Success” for us looks like compassion. It looks like human flourishing and a healthy creation. Our success chart isn’t a straight arrow pointing up, but rather an undulating wave that reminds us of inhaling and exhaling, like a pumping heart, like a living thing, not a sterile growth chart or something.

Tim recalled for us the words of John the Baptist: “I must decrease, that he might increase.” The church isn’t about bigger, better, faster, but about obedience and faithfulness. “Where 2 or 3 are gathered” looks a lot different than a successful business, yeah?

So, Tim is suggesting that we move away from “growth models” to a healthy ecclesiology. You know: What IS the Church, anyway? What do we exist for? What did Jesus command?

He suggests that we move from “growth strategies” to telling stories and trying to understand meaning.

He suggests we move from “growth techniques” to the Church’s historical virtues (and we could just as easily say “values”): Broken-ness, Self-giving (kenosis), gentleness, humility, co-suffering, patience, and all those other things Paul talked about.

The faithful approach isn’t pragmatic (whatever it takes in order to be effective) as it is meant to be practical, embodied by real, living people, who are called to be the image of Christ for their neighbors.

It’s less about doing, and more about being.

It’s less likely to produce anxiety, and more likely to bring peace.

Being a business/Empire requires conformity, uniformity, order. Living under the lordship of Jesus is often chaotic; it frequently involves conflict (which is NOT a bad thing, fellow Lutherans! Without conflict, nothing would EVER change! Wait, maybe that wasn’t a strong selling point. Hmm.) And yet it can be very, very productive.

This was the gist of the presentation. It wasn’t so much a take-down of megachurches and the last 40 years of church growth efforts as it was a way of calling us back to think about what’s necessary NOW. We can’t compare ourselves to megachurches. We’re just not like them in any way. In our small communities, there’s no way to stay anonymous. If you’re not in community with us for a couple weeks running, we’re going to notice. That means we’re also vulnerable, because our lives are more laid open to the other folks who do community with us.This is a Good Thing!

It also means that we can’t be mere spectators. The church of Now is a participatory church. It HAS to be! We need every man, woman, and child – and everybody in between — to help any way they can. This is also a Good Thing!

As society changes, the church needs to change. And the church needs also to remember that God is trustworthy. This “shrinkage” (apologies for the image for all you Seinfeld fans) could very well be the work of the Holy Spirit, who is shrinking our numbers SO THAT we will: lose some of our baggage; reach out to one another; grow spiritually; learn again to trust that God knows what God is doing.

The old model has been, for the past century or more, primarily about US. The church is no longer an alternative way of life compared to Empire, but has come to mirror the thing that God calls us to “come out of” in Revelation. People outside the church see this about us, and they’re opting out. Let’s give up, as Tim Suttle suggests, on the idea of “church growth” and begin thinking more about the flourishing of lives, the flourishing of our communities. Let us be, as Jesus calls us in Matthew’s Gospel, to be salt and light. It only takes a small amount of salt in a recipe to flavor an entire dish. It only takes a bit of light to scatter darkness.

This is what the world needs from us. This is what God has called us to. Let’s be faithful to that call.