Proper 17C 2022
August 28 2022
Blessed be the Name of God
Once again, Luke has given us two stories, unrelated but nonetheless told side by side. My focus this morning will be on the first, the one about the wedding banquet. But, in passing, regarding the second story, the one about whom to invite to a meal, I have a confession to make. I very much like inviting friends to dinner. So there. I’ve said it and I’m glad. Lord, have mercy.
Now, to consider the first story. The one about the wedding banquet.
The book, Blue Highways, was written 40 years ago and was very widely read then and ever since, but I just read it very recently. Fully titled Blue Highways: A Journey into America, it was written by William Least Heat-Moon and reprinted many times since 1982. When I preached last, two weeks ago, I quoted from it, so as to disagree. This morning, I will again quote from it but this time, with appreciation.
The book’s title, Blue Highways, refers to the relative importance of highways on certain road maps in circulation when the book was written. The author intended to limit his travels as exclusively as possible to the highways given on the map in blue. This was the lowest color ranking in the cartographer’s scale of values. In his old van, called “Ghost Dancer,” Heat-Moon traveled over 13,000 miles, hoping to escape his failed marriage and perhaps discover or re-discover himself.
Along the way, he described what he found and the wisdom he learned from the land and from the people who lived wherever he went. The reader is clearly the beneficiary of what he learned, both about himself and from the land and the people.
The wisdom on which I want to depend this morning reads a follows, “It’s better,” says the author,” when people choose to live in a place rather than having to live somewhere out of necessity.” [p. 332, 1999 ed.] I want to use this insight, this bit of wisdom, as a companion to what Jesus has told us just now in the gospel.
“It’s better when people choose to live in a place rather than to live somewhere out of necessity.” Central here is the freedom to choose, the liberty, the standing that invites or allows or permits choice.
In Luke’s account of Jesus’ story, we see into a scene where humility is set in contrast to exaltation. In the world I inhabit, this is not a conventional continuum, humility—exaltation. I think I know something about humility, its virtues and place in the scale of values. Exaltation, not so much.
How should I act when invited to a wedding banquet? Certainly, I must not assume importance. I must not put myself forward but rather adopt a retiring posture, taking a lower if not lowest seat “in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host.” From this humble place, this lowest seat, we are told, it may be that the host will come and say to you, “Friend, move up higher.” Should this invitation be forthcoming, and should you accept the invitation and should you choose to occupy a higher seat, “then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.”
The point of the story is then summarized, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
I think I understand the point of the story, even granting my lack of familiarity with exaltation. It is a certainty that the one counseled about where to sit has the freedom to choose.
As I read this account from Luke’s gospel, I cannot escape laying it alongside what Paul has told us about Jesus in his letter to the Philippians, using a very similar scale of values. In chapter 2, Paul writes, “Let this same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him…” [2.5-9a]
Here is exactly the same continuum, humility—exaltation, and the same counsel follows this example.
Both of these readings commend to the hearers/readers the practice of humility. Jesus and Paul assume that their hearers/readers have the freedom to choose this posture, “choose humility” they are saying. Suggests to me that those who were addressed could choose this…or not. Hearers’ circumstances were not locked in place. They were not indentured or oppressed. They seem to have mobility. One commentator spoke of Luke assuming “elite readers.” [The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 2nd Edition, p.145.] Paul tells us that Jesus “chose” slavery.
As many of you know, Amy and I were part of a historically Black Episcopal parish in East Austin TX. For those 14 years, we became increasingly aware of the privilege we enjoy as white people and the impact the dominant society can have on sub-dominant member of the larger population. Over time and by our own immersion in the community of St. James’ Church, we learned about ourselves just as we learned about the culture into which we had been welcomed. I know that my formation in that Black congregation has helped me read and hear and know the Scriptures in new ways, and to ask new questions.
So I come to Luke’s counsel and to Paul’s counsel wondering about who is able to choose humility and its consequences, and who cannot. And if being able to choose humility is virtuous, and some do not have access to that virtue, what must I do, what must we do to make that virtue available?
When I consider to whom this counsel to humility was directed in the first instance, I am reminded of yet another story. This one from Matthew’s gospel. In this account, in the community of the Twelve, there is a struggle about leadership, prompted by the mother of the brothers James and John asking Jesus to give them privilege. This caused the other followers to be angry, the text tells us. [Mt 20.24]
To these most intimate friends, Jesus says, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave… [Mt 20.25-27] Leadership in the community of Jesus was to be servant leadership, as it has come to be called.
Best I can tell, the people to whom all this strong counsel to humility is directed must surely been men. In the originating society, it was men who led and men who had the liberty to choose. So, gentlemen, you and I must hear these Scriptural directives as foundational for us. We must not rehearse the conviction expressed in Mac Davis’ 1980 hit song, “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way…” Happily, in the men that I know well and best, this conviction about perfection is not alive or formative.
In our own time, equally as surely, these admonitions to humility are meant to apply more broadly. We can and should take them a universals.
In other words, the humility Jesus and Paul are talking about, and the slavery that Paul associates with Jesus, these are not virtuous if imposed or forced or enforced upon certain members of a society. The virtue in these circumstances derives from the choosing.
In the first instance, both Jesus and Paul give us direction as individuals. Choose humility. Yes, indeed. But they also give direction to Christian ministry. Luke and Paul oblige us to help create social practices and opportunities in which these kinds of choices can be made by everyone.
In recent times, when we have been here together, we have admitted to each other that our current national and political lives are in turmoil. Deceptive political rhetoric is rampant and political mischief and malfeasance are clearly alive in the land. There are those who seek earnestly to address these issues but it is a very difficult and complex undertaking. It is a climate in which self-aggrandizement is tempting and seductive. It is also a climate in which issues of real substance are neglected or put aside for people without standing, people on the margins, people who lack the freedom to choose, even the freedom to choose humility.
Exploring the larger dimensions of the politics of choice must await another time and place, but they warrant our thoughtful and faithful attention. For the present, it is the ability and willingness to take a lower seat that is at issue, awaiting the invitation to move up higher.
Blessed be the Name of God