Sunday, September 1, 2013


Luke 14: 1, 7-14

Today’s Gospel lesson tells us something
            about leadership and humility.
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 don’t want to 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 humility.
Actually, he said, he had once been given a medal for humility,
            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 humility.
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 to not just 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 pride.