What’s in it for Jesus?
Rev. Michael Woods
Bethany Presbyterian Church
September 1, 2013
Luke 14:1, 7-14
Labor Day has always been an odd sort of holiday we celebrate in America. Most of our holidays celebrate great events or great people. Columbus Day, for instance, commemorates the discovery of the Americas by Europeans … Veterans Day only commemorates those who have served in our armed forces but also the end of the First World War … the celebration of Thanksgiving remembers the time of the early colonization of America and the return of a bountiful harvest that allowed the pilgrims to survive a harsh winter … there are the great religious festivals of Christmas and Easter … we celebrate the birthdays of our some of our most famous presidents and of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King … and then Memorial Day remembers those who died defending our nation’s freedoms – its celebration began at the end of the American Civil War as a way of remembering both Union and Confederate troops who died during what is still the costliest war for the US in terms of loss of human life … and then on the Fourth of July we celebrate the birth of our nation and the ideals of freedom and democracy.
And then there’s Labor Day! It doesn’t really commemorate any special event – nothing great or important happened on the first Monday of September anytime in our nation’s history that needed to be celebrated or remembered in anyway … at least that I’m aware of … the day was chosen solely because it fell about halfway between the Fourth and Columbus Day. And it doesn’t commemorate anyone particularly famous, or wealthy, or who has a chapter in our public school’s history books devoted to him or her and to the things they did.
Instead, Labor Day commemorates the average American worker. People like you and me. People, who by the work of their hands forged great girders of steel to build bridges or erect skyscrapers … who poured the concrete to build dams that generate electricity to light a path in the darkness … it celebrates those workers who create things with their minds, who deal in the marketplace of ideas and whose major tool is the human brain … and it celebrates immigrant workers who labor 12 to 16 hours a day in the hot Florida sun picking the tomatoes that we buy at the grocery store or add to our plate when we go through the salad bar at a local restaurant. It celebrates the common man and woman … it honors Rosie the Riveter and her spirit of “We can do it!” … it holds up the contributions of every worker … regardless of race or nationality … young or old … male or female. For one day in the life of our nation, we are called upon to hold up the lowliest of our people and say to them: “Yours has been an important contribution to our society … we couldn’t have gotten as far as we have without the work you have done for us all … and we will not forget you.”
Or do we really do all that? Do we say all those things to ourselves? Do we actually pause and reflect as we are called to on Labor Day?
Or do we just light up the barbeque? Break out the beer? Turn on the TV and watch the game? Is Labor Day a day we honor the common woman and man, or is it just the beginning of football season?
Do we do what Labor Day calls us to do, or do we ignore that call and do something else? If we did what Labor Day called us to do … to pause and reflect and remember that without the labor of the common people we could not live in the world we live in today, and then give them honor for what they have done … this holiday would have the potential to be the most Christ-like of holidays our nation celebrates.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus has gone to the home of a man who is a leader of the Pharisees. No name is given but we can assume this man was a well respected leader … someone the other Pharisees looked up to and admired. And though Jesus has been invited into this man’s house and to be part of the feast he was giving, there are some who have gathered there that day who don’t like Jesus, who oppose the gospel he has been preaching … a gospel that is based on love and compassion for all of God’s people… on equality and social justice … and they hope to trap Jesus somehow so they can bring charges against him and get rid of him. And everything that happens at that gathering on that day – some of which we read about this morning and some of which we skipped over – everything that happens reveals to us that the society of Jesus’ time was a society that was preoccupied with the concepts of honor and shame. But Jesus knows that the people around him don’t truly understand those concepts … they have gotten them completely backwards.
He notices they are all clamoring for the seat of the most honored guest – those are the places to the immediate right and left of the host at the table. We still do something like today. Whenever there’s a huge function or a banquet, there are tables set near the front of the banquet hall – those are for the heads of that organization or the people who are throwing the party. Then there are tables a little further down for those a little less important than the first but who are a little more important than the rest, and so on. And while these Pharisees are vying against each other for the choicest spots, Jesus paraphrases for them some of the wisdom of Solomon … a verse from the Book of Proverbs they all should have known about (arguably) but apparently had forgotten about. He tells them:
“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of
honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9 and
the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’
and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited,
go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you,
‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the
table with you. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble
themselves will be exalted.”
When I served as a pastor at my first church in Georgia, I was taught a very important lesson in the subject of honor by the African-American pastor of a neighboring Presbyterian Church. It was a Sunday, during my first year of ministry, and I had been invited by this other pastor to come to a revival that was taking place at his church. Now the speaker was a minister who, at that time, was the president of the National Black Presbyterian Caucus for the Northeast Georgia Presbytery, and I wanted to meet him and hear him preach. So after the service was over at the church where I was pastor, my wife and I ate a quick lunch and went over to the revival. We got there a little late, the service was well underway, the sermon was already well underway, and we did what most Presbyterians would do in a situation like that: we slipped quietly (and what we hoped was unnoticeably) into one of the pews at the very back of the church.
Well, obviously we weren’t about to slip in go unnoticed. And when Reverend Moon, who was the pastor of the church, became aware of my presence, he quietly called one of his elders over to him and whispered something to him … the elder looked over in my direction … and then came down the aisle over to the pew where I was sitting. He leaned over and quietly said, “Rev. Woods, Rev. Moon respectfully requests your presence in the chancel with him and Rev. Smith.”
It was the tradition of that church, as it is in African American churches throughout the south (is it in the north?), that visiting ministers were to be invited to sit in the chancel with the pastor. I was being invited to come forward … to move up. I, who had taken a pew in the back, was being asked to move up higher … to be honored in the presence of everyone. And as I walked down the aisle to the chancel area … as I was welcomed by Rev. Moon and offered a seat … as Rev. Smith paused in the middle of his sermon and offered me his hand … somewhere in the back of my mind was what Jesus was saying in this passage from scripture: “’Friend, move up here to a better seat,’ and you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests.”
That’s what I was thinking. But that was not the real lesson I learned about honor on that day. What Rev. Moon taught me about honor is this: Any lesson on the subject of honor comes with an equivalent lesson on the subject of humility! That’s because honor and humility are two sides of the same coin: you cannot and should not have one without having an equal amount of the other.
Rev. Smith continued to preach for a long time. When he had completed his remarks, we sang a hymn. When we had finished the hymn, Rev. Moon stepped back into the pulpit and he said, “We are very pleased to have a special guest with us this afternoon, the Rev. Mike Woods who is the newly called minister at First Presbyterian.”
Then he turned slowly to me and said, “Rev. Woods, would you honor the congregation with a few words?”
I had nothing prepared! What was I going to say? You can see from all these notes I have up here, I’m a manuscript preacher. I can’t just walk up into a pulpit and just start speaking to people! I have to have something prepared.
Well, he did say “a few words”, but somehow I guessed he really meant more than a few. And if I managed to say anything of coherence … anything that was pleasing and a blessing to that congregation … it was the Holy Spirit that gave those words to me … and nothing I can or should take credit for.
But what I learned about honor on that Sunday has helped me better understand what Jesus was trying to say to the Pharisees in that house. You see, it’s easy to misunderstand … it’s easy to hear what Christ is saying and think to ourselves: Jesus is giving us advice on how we can get the honor we think we so richly deserve. So, we look at this passage under the pretext of What’s in it for me? How can I be honored? How can I be the one who is blessed? We look at it through the false lens of the prosperity gospel of modern society and not the gospel of Jesus Christ. What Christ is trying to teach 21st Century Christianity right along with the Pharisees – and what Rev. Moon taught me that Sunday – is if you want to be honored, you have to be a servant … if you want to be blessed you start by being a blessing to others.
For what we in modern America hold in places of high honor are not what God holds in places of honor. What we hold as great and mighty is not what God thinks of as great … is not what God thinks of as mighty. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,” says the Lord.
On the night that she learned she bore the son of God, Jesus’ mother Mary, a poor single woman sang: 52 God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
So, Jesus goes on to tell the Pharisees and us this morning:
“When you give a luncheon or a
dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in
case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a
banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed,
because they cannot repay you….
I wonder what that does to the gospel of What’s in It for Me? I wonder what that does to our society’s concept of honor and shame? I wonder what that does to our drive and ambition in the world of business? I wonder what that does to our always wanting to get a blessing but never to be a blessing?
Now there’s nothing wrong with drive and ambition in the world of business. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to climb the ladder of success … to build your own financial empire. If that is your calling in life, then blessings be upon you. But in your rise to the top, remember those whose labor helped to create that wealth you enjoy … to whom you owe more than just an hourly wage and a Christmas bonus. You owe them your very livelihood … without them, you wouldn’t be where you are today. None of us would … you can’t do it all on our own … you can’t “build it by yourself” … it takes people working together … it takes community. If you want honor … if you want dignity … then give a little honor and dignity and recognition to others.
Better yet, Jesus says, give a little honor and dignity to those who can never return the favor … who can never give you the honor and dignity you can show to them.
Friends, isn’t that, exactly, what our Lord and Savior has done for us?
Look at this Table we have been invited to! It cost our Lord plenty. It cost his body broken on the cross. It cost his blood poured onto the ground. We can never do for him what he has done for us. Yet he invites us when there is absolutely nothing in it for him!
So when you come to this Table, you come as one who has been raised from the lowliest place on this earth and accorded a place of honor … you sit next to a risen Lord who is the king of this world … and you sit next to every human being who has been a part of the church of Jesus Christ … those who are still alive and those who have passed on … people of every race and nationality. This Table reminds me of the words Dr. King spoke 50 years ago in front of the Lincoln Memorial when he shared with us his dream … “that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down at the Table of Brotherhood” … and it was this very Table, set before us this morning, that he was talking about. And when share the bread and we drink from the cup we proclaim that Christ’s kingdom is here and now … the dream is alive and lives own. This is our faith … this is our hope … this is the source of our strength.
In the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.