The Dinner Party of the Humble

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Published by Josh Hosler on Sun, Sep 1, 2019 1:26 PM
Sermon

sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17C), September 1, 2019
Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 81:1, 10-16; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

There was a funny thing going around on social media recently: an invitation to “badly explain your job.” So, for instance, a nurse who gives vaccinations might say, “I get paid to stab children.” A tech support person says, “All day long I tell people to turn it off and then turn it on again.” Or a management consultant: “You pay me to look at your watch and tell you what time it is.”

A friend of mine, an Episcopal priest in California, decided to play. She said, “Every week I throw a dinner party for a man I’ve never met, but whom I love so much I’ve dedicated my whole life to him.”

Jesus was all about dinner parties. I think they were his favorite occasions, because he loved people, and he loved a good glass of wine. And that’s what dinner parties are all about, right? Well, not everybody drinks wine, but you get the idea. It’s about relaxing with our fellow human beings around a table.

But the dinner party that Jesus attends in today’s gospel has an additional dynamic: competition. And as we all know, nothing ruins a dinner party more efficiently than a blatant show-off. If the host is a show-off, they may expect you to be impressed by how pricey their home or their furniture is. If it’s a guest, you might be stuck listening to a braggart go on and on about something you care nothing about, without that person ever noticing that your eyes have glazed over like a donut.

I think Jesus was stuck at one of these dinner parties. I can imagine the table set up not in a circle, but in a long, long rectangle with the host at the head, and everybody’s jockeying to see who can sit closest to him. But somebody’s going to get stuck at the bottom, closest to the kitchen door.

Among the guests are wealthy merchants and ambitious scribes and maybe even this year’s high priest. There’s a Herodian who keeps dropping Latin words into the conversation to see who’s worthy enough to understand what he’s saying. As all these important men enter, they try to see who can get through the coat check and the foot-washing station fastest and get a glass of wine so they can set it down at one of the highest places.

Is this somebody’s idea of a good time?

I don’t know about you, but my favorite dinner parties are the ones to which I’ve invited an unlikely combination of guests and find that they get along remarkably. They’re discovering things they have in common, they’re sharing stories that are more personal than entertaining, and maybe they’re even learning from each other new perspectives they’d never thought of before. I don’t want pretentiousness at my dinner table. I want vulnerability. I want humility.

It seems that God wants humility too, and Jesus says so. Not only does he hold these people accountable, but he also challenges them to do something risky. Think outside the Rolodex or the Contacts list. Invite the people who never get invited anywhere. Wow. That takes some guts.

I had a flash of a thought this week. We often talk about the world in terms of “good guys” and “bad guys.” We assume that the categories God cares about are “good” and “evil,” or at least “well-intentioned” and “cruel.” This gives us all sorts of excuses when we hurt people: “Well, I meant well!” But what if this isn’t the issue? What if the contrast is not between the evil and the good, but between the arrogant and the humble?

I mean, even arrogant people can do good things. Let’s say you have a lot of money and give a bunch of it away, and it truly improves a lot of people’s lives, but then you get huffy when the thank-you note doesn’t sing your praises loudly enough, and then you can’t understand why nobody wants to hang out with you. There are all sorts of arrogant philanthropists out there.

Likewise, the humble can do evil things. You can be a quiet, unassuming person and still make mistakes that cause others great harm, just because you’re human.

But you know what? I do think that the less arrogant we are, the less likely we are to do evil things in general. And maybe that’s the point. God knows we all have our flaws, some of which we’re not even aware of. Not one of us gets through life “being good” all the time. But if we spend our lives cultivating humility, that will inform all our other actions.

Arrogance is the primary evil of human beings: it goes all the way back. The sin of Adam and Eve was not cruelty, but arrogance: they wanted to be like God and make decisions that only God had the perspective to make. The evil came next, when Cain killed Abel. But behind that murder was Cain’s all-too-human arrogance.

Jeremiah says it too, in today’s reading: “For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.” Rejecting the source of life is arrogant. Setting ourselves up as a source of life to rival God—saying “I alone can do this right”—this becomes evil the moment our shortsightedness begins to harm others.

Now, we might think that there’s an easy solution here. Instead of being insufferable, loudmouthed narcissists, we could all just keep to ourselves. That’s about as humble as it gets, right? Just go about our quiet little lives and don’t make waves.

But when Jesus says to throw a party for those who cannot pay you back, he’s not prescribing an “aw, shucks” kind of humility. He asks of us a daring humility, the kind that is involved in people’s lives and has the power to transform them. That doesn’t have to be a literal dinner party full of strangers; it can look like different things for different people. But when we show true humility, we don’t hide our God-given gifts. We use them well, and we use them for the benefit of others.

Jesus says, “Invite people who can’t pay you back, and you’ll be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” It may sound like Jesus is saying, “Here’s an IOU for the cost of the dinner; after you die, you’ll get what you deserve in return.” Well, I guess that’s fine, if you’re going to remain stuck in the notion that everybody ultimately gets what they deserve.

But from Jesus’ perspective, any talk of settling accounts isn’t intended as theological dogma. He’s just trying to meet people where they are. I think what Jesus is really saying is, “If God keeps any account of your deeds at all, it’s only so that you can stand and watch as God takes that account and runs it through the shredder. Quit worrying so much about getting it wrong and go out of your way to love one another!”

See, it’s not the good who are being resurrected into glory, but the “righteous.” And “righteous” doesn’t mean “perfect” or even “super-good.” Being righteous means being in an open, honest, intentional, loving relationship with God. What brings that positive relationship about? Not a spotless record, and not necessarily a long list of accomplishments. Just the simple humility to accept the gift of God’s love. No strings attached. Even the most notorious sinner can qualify.

Those who encounter God’s love, who discover that primal spark of divinity inside themselves and humbly acknowledge its source, suddenly find themselves free. “What can anyone do to me?” they can now ask. “Why do I need to beat somebody else or know more than somebody else? I am eternally loved! I have nothing to be afraid of!”

Now, I know we don’t all get to be there all the time. Life is full of worries, and we all have a survival instinct that makes us afraid of other people and what they might do to us or take away from us. It’s about the direction, not the destination. We can do things to help us move in the direction of greater humility. A dinner party isn’t a bad place to start, if you can be humble enough to let people into your small, cluttered home and just enjoy being together.

Here’s another opportunity. This Saturday from nine to noon, your team from the College for Congregational Development is hosting a workshop right here in this space called “How to Be a Good Shepherd, Part 1: Gather.” It’s the first of three workshops for sharing the fruit of our group’s learning with the whole congregation. At this first workshop we’ll reflect on the fact that we gather people here each Sunday. Why do we do that? What’s our purpose? We’ll learn specific tools and skills for gathering people well—not with arrogance, but with humility, and with a genuine curiosity to share our lives with new friends. I hope you can join us.

When we practice humility—claiming the lowest place at the dinner table—we strip away the pretense of our lives and admit that we start from nothing and cannot demonstrate our worthiness on our own steam.

I imagine that sitting at that table with all those high-falutin’ bigwigs, Jesus had a secret wish. I think he would rather have quietly slipped out to the kitchen to visit with the slaves, to sit with them while they ate their portion, after everyone else had eaten. But instead Jesus took a breath, cleared his throat, and shared wisdom that called the powerful up short. He spoke prophetic words that have come down through the ages to us today. He knew that on that day it was his job to help the arrogant, not the humble, because those who are sick are more in need of a doctor.

When we come to understand our call to share our gifts with the world—even when that call causes us inconvenience or pain—we find that we and God together are tilling the soil of our souls to grow good fruit, humble fruit, fruit that will nourish and that will last. Good works are the result. And the fruit that we grow will taste great at our next dinner party. Amen

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