Proper 17C Sermon (1998)

Proper 17 (August 28 – Sept. 3)
Texts: Luke 14:1, 7-14;
Prov 25:6-7; Hebrews 13


I’d like to begin by sharing with you once again something from a book I’m reading at bedtime to the boys. It’s Dragons in the Waters, by Madeleine L’Engle, about three adolescents from South Carolina on a boat voyage to Venezuela. Simon, the main character, is a thirteen year-old orphan who lives with his ninety year-old Aunt Leonis in the broken down cottage of a Charleston, South Carolina plantation. Aunt Leonis and Simon are all that’s left from the family who owned the plantation since pre-civil war days, and so they have been forced to gradually sell off most of the plantation to others, including the big house. Aunt Leonis and Simon now live in what amounts to a shack in a far corner of the plantation. There’s no electricity and few of the modern conveniences. Simon has grown up without things like TV’s or computers. What does he do? In addition to going to the local school, Aunt Leonis acts as his private tutor, taking him far beyond his school learning. Aunt Leonis makes learning fun for Simon, and they have developed a unique relationship. But now he is on this special trip, the first time he has ever traveled away from Charleston, where he is going with a distant cousin to sell one of the few remaining valuable possessions left from their plantation. It is a portrait of South American patriot and hero Simon Bolivar, which says something about both where young Simon has gotten his name and why he is now going so far from home to Venezuela. His first stroke of good fortune is to meet two new friends, Poly and Charles O’Keefe.

Early in the story, fourteen year-old Poly asks her twelve year-old brother Charles, “What do you think of Simon?”

Charles smiled his slow smile. “I’ve never met anybody before who wasn’t in our century.””What do you mean?” [Poly responded]

“Aunt Leonis — he belongs to whenever it was she belonged to, and maybe it wasn’t a whole century ago, but it certainly isn’t now.” (1)

I began with this story because I’m intrigued about what it means to belong to this century. I think that a question worthy for us to ponder. Charles suggests to Poly that Simon doesn’t belong to this century, and Poly asks, “What do you mean?” A few pages later she basically answers her own question. Simon is challenging the fact that the three of them are eavesdropping on some of the adults on the voyage, and is about to quote his Aunt Leonis, when Poly cuts him off: “Your Aunt Leonis is absolutely right for her world. But this isn’t Aunt Leonis’ world.” It’s Simon’s turn to ask, “What do you mean?” Poly answers,

“Simon, this is the end of the twentieth century. Things are falling apart. The center doesn’t hold. We don’t have time for courtliness and the finer niceties of courtesy–and I’ve learned that the hard way.”

Poly says our twentieth century is one in which “Things are falling apart. The center doesn’t hold.” Is that true? Would you judge our century to be one in which things are falling apart? Does there no longer seem to be a center by which we can measure our behavior as people seeking to live together peacefully? Are things falling apart because there no longer seems to be clear models of what it means to live decent, productive lives?

I think that many, perhaps most, of us here today might answer “Yes” to all these questions. We have at least a vague sense that things are falling apart. And I bring this out from a children’s story because that is where we most often start. When I listen to folks lamenting about how things are today, I most often hear them begin with the children. ‘Children don’t seem as courteous and respectful as they used to be,’ is something I hear often. And so a courteous, respectful child like Simon in this story is judged to be from a past century.

If we judge such assessments to be basically correct, then what is the solution? The most common answer I think I hear is that we have to get back to “traditional family values.” We have to immerse our children in those traditional values. Many a politician these days are running on the platform of calling us back to those traditional family values. And lots of concerned citizens are flocking to churches that advertise themselves as elevating the traditional family values.

Now, I have to be extremely careful here, that you don’t conclude with what I’m about to say that I’m somehow against traditional family values. I’m not! But I do want to carefully suggest that Jesus came to embody values that somehow go beyond the traditional family values. Jesus came to establish a way of living together in peace that takes the traditional values and transforms them into something more.

There was more than a hint of Jesus’ challenge to us a couple weeks ago when the gospel lesson gave us these words from Jesus,

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against….”

Well, you get the picture, and it isn’t a pretty one. What was Jesus saying?! It certainly doesn’t appear to be a ringing endorsement of family values! I was glad, as our family worshiped in Cincinnati, that I was on vacation and not having to preach this text. (Apologies to Pastor Mary, who did have to preach it, but I’m being honest.)

The problem today, though, is that I’m confronted by the same Jesus challenging us to move beyond our basic values. Oh, it may not be quite as flagrant and obvious as two weeks ago, but in today’s gospel Jesus has subtly presented his fellow dinner guests, and us, with the same challenge. The text begins by telling us that Jesus’ fellow guests, at the home of a leader of the Pharisees, were watching him. Why? Let me suggest to you that it was because the Pharisees were the sort who staunchly stood for the traditional values of their day. They believed in eating sabbath dinners, for example, with a good measure of the proper decorum, grace, and respect. Jesus, on the other hand, already had a reputation of bucking the rules, especially the rules of purity and cleanliness. He worked on the sabbath, even when it meant reaching out to heal unclean, sick people. He and his disciples had the reputation for eating with dirty hands. And the biggest affront of all was eating with unclean people, with known sinners like tax collectors! So these keepers of traditional values were keeping a close eye on Jesus.

But Jesus turns the table by watching them. He carefully watches the way in which they lobby to take seats of highest position and honor, to sit at the head of the table, so to speak. And, then, with what must have come as somewhat of a surprise, Jesus offers some sage advice to them:

“…do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and 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. 10But 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.”

Wow! Perhaps Jesus could play within the rules, after all. That was really smart advice. But Jesus’ concluding remark reveals the real depth to his insight: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” In other words, Jesus isn’t just giving sage advice, playing along with the so-called traditional values, but he is also seeing right through the game they are playing. It is a game we all play, the game of justifying ourselves, the game of trying to look good before others. It is the game of building our reputations, usually at someone else’s expense. Jesus came to fundamentally change the rules of that game. For none of us can ultimately succeed in that game when we come before God, our Creator. We will all have been found to fall far short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).

There’s more. If his first words to the guests that day were at least sage advice, Jesus’ final words to his host were anything but:

“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. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

These words virtually turned their whole enterprise upside down. This might not seem as much of a challenge to us as Jesus’ words two weeks ago, but to his host they might have seemed even more blasphemous. If one was to be serious about keeping the traditional values of purity, one would never even think of inviting such people.

But Jesus is exposing their game. In essence, the games of self-justification, of building reputations, these are all human power games. And the results of such games are that some people rise to power and some don’t. Some people become part of the in-group and some are left out. And this is precisely why so many of our so-called traditional family values need to be transformed and taken to another level. This is why Jesus challenges us to go beyond traditional family values: Because we can never truly claim to be family when some people are left out. Mixed with our power games of self-elevation, our traditional family values work out to be ones in which some families win and those who are left out lose.

Jesus came to expose and challenge all that. He came and took the very lowest place. He came and let himself be perceived as a sinner, a lowest of the low, a common criminal hanged on the cross. But his challenge to us, if we have eyes to see it, is a gracious one. For it relieves us of all that burdensome work of justifying themselves. His own resurrection was both the challenge to the world that only God can justify our lives and the promise that God does do precisely that: God mercifully forgives all who repent and claims them as God’s own. God claimed little Audra baptized this morning. Before she even has a chance to build any reputation for herself, God graciously forgives her and anoints her as a child in God’s family, a family which seeks to embrace all of God’s creatures.

Are we falling apart in the twentieth century? Is there no center to hold us together? Yes, there is a center. The same one that has been offered to us since our Lord was raised from the dead, exalted as the Son of God from his place with the lowest of the low on the cross. So we simply cannot proclaim ourselves to have family values until we are reaching out to include all God’s children. We must go beyond the so-called traditional family values by taking our place with the least of our brothers and sisters, extending to them God’s promise of grace and love in Jesus Christ. He is the center who can truly hold us together in one family. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, August 29-30, 1998

Pastoral Reflections included Saturday Night (but not Sunday)

Let us test Jesus’ challenge to us for a moment with a very important issue: President Clinton’s crisis over his admittedly “inappropriate relationship” with Monica Lewinsky. Does Jesus’ challenge to go beyond traditional family values lend us any deeper insight?

Traditional family values holds up the sanctity of marriage and the terrible affront of adultery. I have no quarrel with this. Our second lesson from Hebrews this morning also speaks to us about the sanctity of the marriage bed. Persons in Christ need to keep their marriage bed undefiled.

But does Jesus help us to see that there are even deeper issues involved here, too. Issues involving, first of all, those power games we play. President of the United States is arguably the most powerful position in the world. And what happens when that position of power is mixed with the issue of adultery? I think that history shows us a change has taken place. Thirty years ago (and beyond) marriage fidelity was definitely a cherished value for the average person, but what happened when a man in power, like the President, was suspected of adultery? People generally looked the other way, didn’t they? That was their private lives, people would say, and such men in power were basically left alone.

But things have changed over the last thirty years, whether President Clinton cares to admit it or not. We no longer look the other way when men in power use their power to abuse relatively powerless women as if it were a perk of their jobs. Yes, the Kenneth Starr pursuit has been relentless and perhaps at times unfair. But the fact that we no longer look the other way is a good thing, isn’t it? I would suggest that Jesus’ challenge to us to be more sensitive to the least powerless in our power games can give us a different view of Monica Lewinsky. A powerful person like the President, in having an affair with a 21 year-old intern, is not just committing adultery, he is using the public power of his office to abuse a less powerful person. And so this is not purely a private matter, like the President wants to claim. It intimately involves the public power that comes with his office. Men who abuse such power now lose their jobs. A college professor having an affair with a student has a good chance of losing his or her job. A CEO having an affair with an employee far down the power chain stands a good chance to lose his or her job. Pastors having affairs with parishioners in most churches will lose their ordinations. And it’s more than a matter of simply adultery. It is the abuse of power of a public office. Jesus challenges us to go beyond the traditional family values to also see the sin involved with our power games, the kind of games which abuse the powerless and leave them outside the mainstream families of our human communities.

We know the pain here at Emmaus of such an abuse of power. We have had the pastoral office abused in recent years. It cuts deep into the fabric of trust and faith in not just the individual who holds the office, but also in the office itself. (How many of the people most deeply hurt by this are now on the fringes or outside our Emmaus family?) Pastor Mary and I still have to work hard to gain that trust back by doing our best, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to respect this office and to hold it with great integrity. With God’s help, we can faithfully continue that difficult work.

1. Madeleine L’Engle, Dragons in the Waters [New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1976], p. 46 & 66.

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