Scripture – Luke 14:1, 7-14 – Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 28, 2016
Ya gotta wonder about Katie Ledecky. For those of you who don’t recognize her name right off, Katie is a 19-year-old Olympic swimmer who dominated the recent games in Rio by winning four – count ‘em – four gold medals and one silver by swimming faster than anyone else, and in one case, faster than anyone else ever.
If you’re one of those people who, like me, read the cereal box while you’re eating its contents, you may now be anxiously awaiting the new Wheaties box, right? The one with Katie Ledecky on the front. Or, for the swimmers among us, you’ll be watching for your next pair of goggles, or bathing suit, or bathing cap, or coverup with her name emblazoned across. Our swim team children will point to the more expensive item in the store and want that one because, “Mom, they’re Katie Ledecky goggles! I want those!”
So, as I said, you gotta wonder about Katie Ledecky because she said “no”. She declined what would have amounted to about $5 million dollars a year in endorsements, to remain an amateur collegiate swimmer. She’s going to go to Stanford and will swim on their team because as she said in a recent ESPN radio interview, she simply wants the college experience. “I’ve always wanted to swim collegiately and have that experience. I think it is going to be a lot of fun to be on a team with some really great friends and great swimmers and also just go to class with them.” The experts do say that in another four years, when Katie competes in the Olympics again, she’ll probably be even better and the chances at endorsements will most likely present themselves again, but you have to admire this young woman for exhibiting an attitude of humility in the face of the promise of millions of dollars in her pocket and becoming a household name.
Now I don’t think any of us here have been tempted to elevated personas in quite the same way, but maybe this has happened to you. Last week Doug and I received in the mail a large, thick silver-colored envelope (come to find out it was actually supposed to be the color of platinum, so now you might know where I’m going with this) with a heavy-paper invitation inside which read “A World of Privilege awaits you.” A world of privilege awaits you. The credit card solicitation promised doors opening all over the globe in premier hotels and five-star restaurants and, of course, first class treatment everywhere by flashing this card.
A world of privilege awaits you. We get glimpses of how that might feel every time we get to cut a line and leave those poor folks with no influence waiting longer for a table or to get through the security line or to get to the DMV counter. Feels good to be ushered down to the front, to be allowed to go first, whatever the circumstance, even when it’s usually just dumb luck.
Jesus knows that and in this morning’s passage he is not just reminding folks to get a hold of themselves and be polite, along with the practical rewards of behaving that way, but, more importantly, he is giving us all a glimpse of the realm of God, the kingdom of heaven, God’s heavenly table, where the boundaries and the barriers and the divisions we humans maintain mean nothing. As one commentator said, where they become “void of meaning.” Socioeconomic class, race, education level – whether we belong to the country club or not, fly first-class or coach, have special initials before or after our names or not, no matter the doors we can open with our gold diamond platinum credit cards. In God’s realm, God’s the Host, God does the inviting and we need to be prepared so as not to be surprised by who will be sitting next to us or closer to the throne.
I know I’ve shared with you before how struck I was at my Dad’s death bed to notice that he went out of this world the same way he came in. Naked with no possessions. He had been rushed to the nearby hospital from the nursing home, so his wallet with all his various identifications, his bank card, all the same contents of pretty much anyone’s wallet which grant us access in this world to money and things and identity, had been left behind. Literally and figuratively, all of it was left behind. In the end, none of it mattered. My mother used to remind us when we were overly impressed with celebrity that the person in question put on his or her pants one leg at a time, just like everybody else.
This morning we are called to remember who and whose we are and to remember the importance of humility. Yale Divinity School professor Emilie Townes writes:
“…Jesus is doing more than giving a biblical-world Miss Manners lesson. He is highlighting the ways in which the realm of God establishes its own social and spiritual order; trying to presume a place in that order is unwise and perhaps even unfaithful. …Jesus wants us to understand that our all-too-human drive to seek the best seat in the house or at the party will not mark genuine participation in God’s mercy and love.”
Jesus makes the point that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled; and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” I love the way Eugene Petersen in The Message interprets this verse for a contemporary audience: “If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face. But if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.” Or as Union Theological Bible professor Rodney Sadler offers: if we allow our presumptive points of privilege “to define us, they will certainly disgrace us.”
After Jesus delivers this admonition to the guests, however, he doesn’t stop there. He then addresses the host, reminding him, when he gives a banquet, not to just invite the kind of people who have the means, the reputations, the connections to turn around and do the same for him and maybe better, but to invite the people who cannot repay – the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.
Much of our behavior around grasping for privilege is in order to be noticed, maybe even admired, and people who understand the workings of the human psyche maintain that’s because we may be lacking in something else, usually love or healthy attention. I think about the Pharisees and Jesus’ criticisms of them throughout the gospels charging them with showiness and boastfulness, and one Pharisee in particular boldly standing to pray and thanking God he wasn’t like these other low-lifes around him. As a group it seems like they were always right up front, physically close to Jesus, the new sensational rabbi, asking him the kind of questions that made them look smart and holy, almost to say notice me, Jesus, admire me, Jesus. Look what I’m wearing, where I’m sitting. And time and time again, who did Jesus notice? The ones out there at the edge of the crowd. He’d look right over the Pharisees’ heads and notice the outcasts, the lepers whom no one would touch, the children who had no worth, the demon-possessed, the lame, the poor, the bleeding. That’s who Jesus notices…the ones who can’t even come in to the banquet.
Goodness knows we want Jesus’ love and attention, but to be noticed by Jesus, the last things we need are fame, or our pictures on cereal boxes or million-dollar endorsement deals, or privileged credit cards. The last things we should do are to elbow our way up front, to try to place ourselves in the center of attention or at the head table. To be noticed by Jesus, to be invited by Jesus, to be included by Jesus, we need to take it down a notch, maybe more than just one notch, to empty ourselves of desperate egos in order to make room for the ones Jesus had already noticed when we brushed right by.
My dear friends, Bishop William Temple captured it best in his quote provided in your bulletins this morning: “Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself than of other people, nor does it mean having a low opinion of your own gifts. It means freedom from thinking about yourself at all.” Kind of like just going off to college to swim and attend class with your friends. Ya gotta wonder. Amen.