Luke 14:1, 7-14 8/28/16 Epiphany, Norfolk

All three of our readings this morning deal with the theme of “humility.” Now, your lesson sheet says that our first reading is from the Book of Sirach. If you’re wondering where Sirach came from, it used to be called Ecclesiasticus, and is in the Apocrypha, which is a collection of “non-canonical” books that sometimes are included with the Old Testament. Well, everyone always got Ecclesiasticus confused with Ecclesiastes, which is in the Old Testament. So, they have renamed Ecclesiasticus to help sort this out. Well, the writer of Sirach just puts it very bluntly – “The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart has withdrawn from its Maker. And then it goes on to talk about the ravages of pride, and ends with the phrase “Pride is not created for human beings.”

Then, our second reading from Hebrews urges us to be compassionate – care about each other: strangers, prisoners, and victims of torture. And then it implores us to keep our marriage beds undefiled – at least I don’t have to worry about that one – and to keep our lives free from the love of money. I don’t have to worry about that one, either, since I don’t have any.

And then our Gospel – good old Luke. He has Jesus eating on the Sabbath with the leader of the Pharisees. Now remember, the Pharisees were the ones who made such a big deal out of keeping to the letter of the law. And the text says: “They were watching him closely.” You better believe they were watching him. This was a trap! They were checking him out, to make sure he knew the law; also, to go after him if he broke the law. And the law was so complicated that it was almost impossible not to break it. I deal with HUD regulations all the time. For almost every regulation in the book, there is another in a different section, that counteracts the first. So, we’re told that as the group sat down to dinner, Jesus watched the guests clamor for the best seats, the seats of honor, presumably, those closer to the leader.

I think all of us have seen this sort of thing. Watch the political appearances on TV. There always seems to be a group that sort of hovers around important people, trying to get in the picture, or trying to appear important, hoping for that personal acknowledgement.

A few years ago I read an article by the member of the National Cathedral staff who had been responsible for “protocol” at President Reagan’s funeral service at the Cathedral. They have “playbooks” worked up years in advance for these events. And she mentioned that a huge amount of energy was devoted to “seating protocol” – who would sit nearest to which important personalities at the funeral. The Reagan funeral had been in the works for two years, and the seating had to be revised every time someone important died or fell out of favor. When you deal with government figures, who is seen with whom is everything. People lose their jobs for not “getting it right.” But it’s not just in our government. We’ve all known a few people who will claw eyes out to get “that place of honor.”

Well, back to our story. They all get settled, and Jesus, obviously pretty disgusted, tells them the well known “Parable of the Wedding Banquet.” And then he gets in a little “dig” at the Pharisees by encouraging them to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind to their banquets. This would have been totally outrageous to the Pharisees, because Pharisees considered anyone who was poor, or disabled to be under the punishment of God, unclean, untouchable. The Pharisees could not be in the presence of “those people.” That was the “Law According to the Pharisees”, but it was in conflict with “The Law of Moses.” Jesus had just caught the Pharisees at their own game.

I know I’ve told this story before, so if you’ve heard it, please forgive. It’s just one of those “formative events” in my life. About 40 years ago, I was living in Ghent. Now, Ghent was not yet fashionable like it is today, but it was great, cheap living. I had rented a big old townhouse: 18 rooms, 9 fireplaces, and termites everywhere, for $65 a month. It really was sort of “high bohemian” living, and I loved it. Well, I had a neighbor – a really nice guy who rented a third floor apartment across the street from me. He was a navy lawyer, good looking, a lot of money, from a wealthy Mormon family. Daddy was big in the Mormon Temple. This guy had everything in the world going for him, except, he had no humility – absolutely none. He just thought he was the greatest. One of his favorite and frequent remarks was, “I am so pleased with myself”, and indeed he was. He loved to talk about how good he looked, especially in his uniform, how impressive he was in his sports car, which was fantastic, how “with it” he was living in Ghent, how clever he has at managing his investments, how smart he was, what a good cook he was, what good company he was, and on and on it went. Well, one day I had enough of it. I just told him pretty much what I thought of him. It didn’t faze him. He just informed me that I didn’t know how lucky I was to have his friendship. And you know, the sad part of this was that he would have been a fantastic person with just a little humility. Just a little bit would have done it. I still get Christmas cards from him. He’s now an Episcopalian and attending one of the big wealthy parishes in Washington DC. I’m just so glad he’s not at Epiphany.

I guess we all fall prey to this, on occasion. All of us like to feel a little special, a little important.

Another formative story – again told before. My first real job as a teenager was working as a bag boy at Colonial Stores, which was a popular grocery chain in this area. I had gotten the job because my family knew the President of the Company. And apparently someone had alerted the checkers and other bag boys to be careful around me because I knew people “in high places.” I was young and full of typical 15 year old cockiness. About three days after I started work, I said something that ticked off one of the checkers. And I can remember her turning to me and snapping, “I don’t care who you are, or who you know, you will stand in the same line for your paycheck as I will, so shut your mouth and get those groceries bagged.”

I’ve never forgotten that. That woman, Mary Ellen, I still remember her name, probably did me the biggest favor of my life. She was right. I would stand in line with her, and with all of my other co-workers, for my pay check. And I also realized that they had their jobs on their own merits – not on who their families knew, and that probably made them just a little bit more important than me.

Humility is one of those things we learn, and we learn it young, or we learn it hard. Somewhere along the way we find out, that we all stand in the “same line” for a paycheck, for friendship, for acceptance, for God’s love, for whatever. No – we aren’t all exactly equal. No, we aren’t all just the same. Each of us has special skills, and talents, and abilities, and personalities, and knowledge. These things become our ministries – what we bring to the “table of life” as our offerings.

“Pride was not created for human beings.” That wonderful cashier, and my very puffed up friend/neighbor in Ghent – they taught me some things about life. They helped me discover the type of person I wanted to be, and didn’t want to be. That’s something we each have to discover for ourselves.

My hope is that as we leave this room today, and return to that world out there, maybe we can be conscious of our own pride and the impact that it has on those around us. Pride and lack of humility can be awesome stumbling blocks to otherwise wonderful lives and relationships.

“Pride was not created for human beings.”

Amen.

Posted August 30, 2016 by Church of the Epiphany in Epiphany Moments

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