Frank Sinatra Sings St. Luke
Jesus’ advice on where to sit at a banquet
is one of the most misunderstood sayings in the New Testament
and that misinterpretation has caused no end of trouble,
especially in the Church.
It sounds like Jesus is advising us to use false modesty
as a backdoor way to gain prestige.
Don’t put yourself forward if you would risk being put down.
How much better to deliberately sit below your station
so you will be invited up higher;
and thereby win public acclaim not only for your prestige
but also for your modesty.
The first thing to know is that this is a Jewish joke
– but we take it seriously.
Maybe a British joke will make the point better.
I am not a fan of Prince Charles
but sometimes he gets it right.
He was once given an award of some sort.
He said how grateful and honored he was by this award
as well as all the other awards he had received.
But he regretted that he had never gotten an award for modesty.
Actually, he said, he had once been given a medal for modesty,
but when he put on, they took it away from him.
Our Gospel lesson is usually read as a sneaky way
to get a medal for modesty.
They wouldn’t do this in the business world
where serious money is at stake.
They wouldn’t do it in sports where kids on the bench
jump up and down saying “put me in coach.”
But in places like the Church where status is more subtle
and is achieved in far more duplicitous ways,
we have to slip our pride in the back door.
People are readier to have root canals than they are
to put themselves forward to lead in ministry and mission.
No one wants to admit to considering himself “worthy” to lead.
We are all too humble to do the job Christ has given us.
Back when Agnes Sanford was the great teacher of healing ministries
in the Episcopal Church, after one of her workshops,
a man told her he felt called to a ministry of healing,
but he knew he was not worthy.
Agnes replied, “Then get worthy.”
But what about our Gospel lesson?
Is Jesus actually advising us to adopt a posture of false humility,
slinking into our unworthiness, wringing our hands like Uriah Heep?
Is Our Lord prescribing manipulative self-abasement
as a devious way to climb the social ladder?
I don’t think so.
Yes, he says “whoever humbles himself will be exalted;
and whoever exalts himself will be humbled.”
But it doesn’t really matter
whether we humble ourselves or exalt ourselves.
In Luke’s Gospel the lowly are always getting exalted;
and the exalted are always being brought low.
But then the formerly exalted become the lowly,
who are due to get exalted again.
Meanwhile the formerly lowly have gotten exalted
so they are the ones heading for a fall.
The picture of life we get from Luke’s Gospel is a see-saw.
In the words of the Frank Sinatra classic,
“That’s life. That’s what all the people say.
You’re riding high in April, shot down in May.
But I know I’m gonna change that tune
When I’m back on top in June.
I said, ‘That’s life.’”
It’s true isn’t it.? That is what happens.
But Jesus does not agree with Frank Sinatra on one point.
All that riding high and getting shot down are not life.
They are not what life’s actually about.
Life is about how we treat each other on the way up
and how we treat each other on the way down.
The gospel happens as truth and justice, as healing and mercy,
as relationships sparking between such unlikely friends
as Jews and Samaritans
– of such things, the Kingdom of God is constituted.
Those who climb any ladder, whether it is the ladder
of government, military, business, or church
achieve a perilous perch.
The higher we get, the farther we have to fall.
But refusing to step up a rung to do the job
is an act of either spiritual cowardice or moral sloth.
We have to be ready to rise and ready to fall for sake of the gospel.
Status is not the thing to focus on.
Rank is irrelevant. Authority is irrelevant. Prestige is irrelevant.
What matters is the mission – a mission that happens
not just in the church but also in the home, in the community,
in the workplace.
Our lesson from Hebrews describes the mission
as hospitality to strangers, mercy to prisoners and the suffering.
The mission is sharing God’s love with a broken world
in tangible ways.
What matters is the mission and the mission needs leaders.
But this kind of mission calls for a different kind of leader.
Jesus said, “The one who would be first among you
must be the one who serves.”
Throughout Luke’s Gospel, Jesus teaches
a different kind of leadership —servant leadership.
It isn’t about being a boss, a ruler saying “Do this. Don’t do that.”
Rulers are the ones who take the head of the table
in an attempt to gain rank.
But it isn’t about being a doer either.
It isn’t about the lone ranger servant who acts alone.
Doers are the sneaky ones who try to gain rank
by sitting at the foot of the table.
Of course it is easier to do something ourselves
than to get someone else to do it.
And there are advantages to doing it ourselves.
When we do ministry on our own,
people come to depend on us
and there is a kind of power in that.
What’s more, if I do it myself, it gets done my way.
But if I recruit someone else to do it,
they are apt to do it their way
– which may be right or wrong –
but it isn’t my way.
Pride wants its own way.
But the gospel leader, the Christian leader, the servant leader
is not a ruler or a solo doer.
The servant leader get his hands dirty serving the mission
then invites, encourages, and inspires
others to take the mission on.
Do you see the sacrifice, the humility it takes to be a servant leader?
It takes empowering someone else so that they don’t depend on us
– which is a loss to our status right there --
and it takes trusting them to do the job their way.
Can you imagine what it was like for Jesus at the Ascension
to hand over the gospel mission to a bunch of goof balls
like the apostles?
After the apostles planted churches all over the civilized world
they had to pass the job on to the first generation of bishops
– none of whom had even met the historical Jesus.
Jesus rose above pride when he handed the mission over
to the Apostles.
The apostles rose above pride when they handed the mission
over to the bishops.
The bishops rose above pride when they ordained the priests
and entrusted congregations to their leadership.
And so it goes.
We rise above pride when dare not just to do the job,
but to invite, encourage, and inspire
someone else to share it with us
– even take it over from us.
That’s how we build up the kingdom of God
from the ashes of our own pride.