On vacation, so:
here’s a facsimile of the sermon I preached three years ago when Luke 14:1, 7-14 last appeared in the lectionary.
One Sabbath, when Jesus came to eat a meal in the house of one of the leading Pharisees, the guests watched him closely. Jesus went on to address a parable to the guests, noticing how they were trying to get a place of Honour at the table. “When you’re invited to a wedding party, don’t sit in the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished has been invited. Otherwise the hosts might come and say to you, ‘Make room for this person,’ and you would have to proceed shamefacedly to the lowest place. What you should do is go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your hosts approach you they’ll say, ‘My friend, come up higher.’ This will win you the esteem of the other guests. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Then Jesus said to the host, “Whenever you give a lunch or dinner, don’t invite your friends or colleagues or relatives or wealth neighbours. They might invite you in return and thus repay you. No, when you have a reception, invite those who are poor or have physical infirmities or are blind. You should be pleased that they can’t repay you, for you’ll be repaid at the resurrection of the just.
I have often heard Jesus’ teaching about who sits where at a wedding feast used to encourage a kind of humility that requires those who would follow Jesus to take a back seat or better still adopt a cloak of invisibility lest we be mistaken for the proud and self-righteous. Canadians have a special affinity for this particular way of interpreting this text. It seems to me that the image of Canadian humility suggests that Canadian Christianity has had a huge impact upon our national psyche. I know that there are many who would insist that our humble national character is a direct result of living in the shadow of the Americans, whose national identity is anything but humble. I have to admit that the constant drumbeat of “We’re number one!”, “We’re number one!” coupled with a patriotism that champions the idea of American Exceptionalism which is the notion that the United States alone has the right, whether by divine sanction or moral obligation, to bring civilization, or democracy, or liberty to the rest of the world, by violence if necessary. With such pride of place, you can be sure that each and every one of our American cousins is endowed with the confidence on knowing exactly where they belong at the head table. So, is it any wonder that living next-door to a nation that instills such patriotic ardor in its citizens, that we Canadians would find a more humble approach more appealing.
Don’t get me wrong; I know that stereotypes rarely express the full character of a nation and so, it would be a mistake to paint all Americans with the same brush. But I dare say that you’d be hard pressed to find a Canadian who would disagree that even the most enlightened of our American cousins who might be found from time to time to speak softly, doesn’t underneath it all carry a big stick. Where Bravado flows through our American cousin’s national character, most Canadians prefer a quieter, softer, gentler approach, lest we be confused with the worst of American stereotypes: “the ugly American.”
So, renowned is our Canadian reputation for humility, that Americans who themselves are afraid of being treated like Americans, have been known to impersonate Canadians while traveling. I can still remember, backpacking around Europe and running into young American’s who’d sowed Canadian flags onto their packs, so that Europeans might not treat them like the quintessential Ugly American. I used to take great delight in trying to help these imposters, who would often insist that they were from “To-ron-to.” I remember coaching more that one or two American interlopers that in addition to adding the odd eh, to the end of their sentences they should learn how to say, “Toranna,” or “Taranta” rather than “To-ron-to.” But alas, so many of our American cousins remain blissfully unaware of their apparent ugliness as they belly up to the front of the line, insisting on their divine right to feast at the head of the table.
As repugnant as the stereotypical Ugly American might be he pales in comparison to the stereotype of the “Ugly Christian” who although they are not confined to the American variety of the species has without a doubt been perfected by our Bible-believin neighbours to the south. For I dare say that while the average Canadian has learned to take being confused for an Ugly American in our stride, we’d never in our wildest nightmares want to be mistaken for one of those Ugly Christians. You know the type I’m talking about.
Those bible thumping, simple minded, fundamentalist, self-righteous, judgmentalist, killjoys, who’d make the good Lord himself want to run a mile, rather than risk listening to them harp on about being saved.
Lord help me Jesus, but don’t let them think we’re one of those. Canadians might be humble, shy, and retiring, but the average Canadian Christian, is so humble, so shy, and so retiring when it comes to their Christianity, that you’d hardly know we’re here. That’s just the way most of us would like to keep it. Who can blame us when you see how those loud-mouthed Christians who are so quick to condemn with their holier than thou attitudes are shunned in our ever so polite Canadian culture? Who wants to be mistaken for one of them?
Is it any wonder that the average, middle-class, mainline, Christian has learned the so well the art of keeping our mouths shut when it comes to our religion? We want people to see us as fun-loving and easy-going. We don’t want people to think we’re one of “those Christians”. No not us. We’re the live and let live types. So rather than be confused for one of “those Christians” we keep our mouths shut. We don’t want people to think we’re simple-minded or delusional.
So, even though our Christian faith is of the 21st century variety with a more enlightened nuanced approach to life, that allows us to engage our minds in faith, rather than blindly accepting the dogma of the past, we’d rather not get into all that. So, we get by, by keeping ourselves to ourselves. Trusting that as humble Christians, all will be well, if we just keep our mouths shut, and we strive to live our lives, in splendid isolationism, where our religion is banished from the workplace, from the market place, from politics, and from polite company itself. Our fear of being mistaken as an Ugly Christian has turned most of us into Invisible Christians.
The only trouble with our attempt to hide from the perils of being mistaken for an Ugly Christian is that the more invisible we become the more visible they become. So omnipresent are the Ugly Christians that soon, they will own the brand itself. Why if things are allowed to continue, soon you won’t need to even bother designating some Christians as narrow-minded, judgmental, self-righteous, hypocrites, because they will own the brand and the word “christian” will become synonymous with narrow-minded, judgmental, self-righteous, hypocrites. Soon, if we remain invisible, Christians will no longer be known by their love, but by the hate-filled rhetoric that makes up so much of what passes for Christianity.
While we’re busy patting ourselves on the back for being the quieter, gentler types, actually taking pride in our humility, confident that by not even asking for a place at the table, we will be honored for our more humble approach, the table itself is being redesignated as a place for the strong, wealthy, doctrinally pure and self-righteous, where the weak and the broken need not apply, unless they check their brains at the door, and swear alliance to the born again, bible-thumping, rhetoric that condemns all those who fail to comply to the fiery pits of hell for all eternity, confident in the knowledge that their God is almighty and swift in his judgment of those who are of course guilty not only of sin but of uncertainty and Lord ain’t it hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way.
While we’re busy being humble in our approach, we’ve forgotten the most important thing about humility.
When Jesus came to eat a meal in the house of one of the leading Pharisees, the guests watched him closely. Jesus was not invisible. Jesus did not blend into the background. Jesus did not keep his mouth shut.
Jesus was anything but polite. They were watching him. Actually the text says that they watched him closely. In Greek it says, that they watched him closely out of the corner of their eyes. Jesus was anything but invisible. The ironic thing about humility is that humility must be seen in order to be known at all as humble.
I dare say that most of you are anything but invisible. No matter how much you’d like to remain anonymous about your Christianity; no matter how far you’ve tried to distance yourselves from those Christians, people know who you are and they’re watching you. No matter how gently or softly we Canadians are in our approach to the world, we are not invisible. The world continues to watch us. The world continues to look to us to see how we engage the issues.
Canadians are not invisible. When we provide inspired leadership people notice. When we fail to provide inspired leadership the world expresses it’s disappointment. No matter how much we’d like to simply mind our own business, the world is watching us. And no matter how much you’d like to think that you can remain invisible when it comes to your faith, let me assure you that people have noticed you. Your kindness has not gone unnoticed. Your generosity has been felt. Your leadership has been appreciated.
People have seen you in action and they have wondered how you do it. So, unless your prepared to let them believe that your faith has nothing to do with who you are, you might want to help them to connect the dots. I know I’m suggesting that you act out of character.
Believe me I know how difficult it is to expose our Christian identity. A while back I was delivering some grocery vouchers as part of our LOV Ministries’ effort to respond to the needs of our neighbours. I stopped by on my way home from church and so I was wearing my collar. The person I was helping asked me, why minister’s wear the collar. It’s a question that I have struggled with and will probably continue to struggle with. I know that some of my colleagues have given up wearing the collar because they think it’s too formal or that it sets them up for special treatment. Some think we shouldn’t wear it out of a sense of humility. When I first became a pastor, I rarely wore a collar. Oh, I wore it on Sunday mornings, but that was mostly because people expected me to wear it on Sundays and it helped me to remember who I was. There’s nothing like a collar to choke you into remembering that as a pastor people are watching you, lest you forget and do something that would bring the office of pastor into disrepute. When you’re wearing one of these it changes how you act. For example, when you’re driving and someone cuts you off, you can’t give into the urge to give them the finger, because it wouldn’t just be you who is giving them the finger but the church. When you wear a collar you represent the church. Wear it badly and it’s not just you that people see misbehaving but the whole church. So, I try my best not to misbehave when I’m wearing a collar. Except of course when I want to be seen misbehaving. And so, I always wear a collar to a protest march, so that the church can be seen to be on the side of peace, or justice, or against poverty, or war; or so that the church can be seen to be in solidarity with the poor, with environmentalists and with our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. It’s part of my job to make the church visible in the world. I didn’t really understand that role until one day I was caught wearing my collar in the most unexpected place. You see in the beginning, I limited the wearing of the collar to Sundays and to protest marches, and maybe to the hospital, because in hospitals the collar makes it easier to get people who are otherwise too busy to do things for patients. But I was always uncomfortable wearing the collar and I suppose if the truth be told, I didn’t really want people to confuse me for one of those holier than thou types.
One day, I needed some candles and so I dashed into the Zellers over the road to quickly grab a couple. I was having difficulty finding just the right candles when a store clerk came up to me and asked me if I would come with her. I figured that I’d been lingering over the candles for so long that she must have mistaken me for a shoplifter, but as we hurried along, she explained to me that there was a man in housewares who was abusing his wife and child. I’d forgotten that I was wearing a collar, but the reality of what this clerk was asking me to do choked me into realizing that the collar had lead her to believe that I could actually do something.
Not knowing what she expected me to do, I told her to call 911. She assured me that they had already called, but that in the meantime perhaps I could help. We stopped just before the aisle where the abuse was taking place. The store clerk whispered that, “they are just over there.”
As she pointed, I realized that she wanted me to go on alone. So, not knowing what to expect, I took a deep breath and walked in on a scene that was way beyond my abilities. A big burly guy was twisting the arm of a woman while a little girl of about 4 or 5 stood crying. The man was yelling obscenities when I interrupted him.
When he looked at me, I saw the fear in his eyes as he immediately let go of the woman who fell to the floor. The little girl ran to her mother. I expected the man to turn on me, but instead he just stared at me, as he began to cry, “I’m sorry pastor, forgive me.”
It wasn’t I who stood before him, but the church, his church, the church that had taught him right from wrong. The collar I wore made the church visible to him and made it impossible for him to forget who he was. As a child of God, he couldn’t continue what he was doing. As a child of God, he knew in his bones that he was wrong. He wept until the police arrived.
From that day on, I’ve known the power of the collar to make the church visible in the world and so I wear it a lot more often than I’d ever expected I would. Now I know that it is part of my job to make the church visible in the world. But I also know that as part of the priesthood of all believers it is also your job to make Christ visible in the world.
Each of you at your baptism were marked with the cross of Christ forever, and ordained to the priesthood that we all share. While some of us have been called to represent the church as clergy, we all share a higher calling to represent Christ. Each of you have been called and ordained to be Christ here and now. And whether you like it or not you are not invisible. People are watching you. The way in which you represent Christ will be noticed. The Christ you reflect will impact the image of Christ that the world sees. So, let the world see Christ in you. Christ who is humble.
Oh and by the way, let me remind you exactly what it means to be humble. Humble comes from the old English word humus, which literally means , ground, or earth. To be humble is to be grounded, as Christ was grounded in the earth. To walk humbly is to remember who you are, Children of God, who is the ground of our being. As children of God, reflect the beauty of what it means to be created in the image of God who is love. Make Christ visible in acts of love. Not for your glory, or for the church’s glory, but for the glory of God who is LOVE.
Change the stereotype. Remember: the ironic thing about humility is that humility must be seen in order to be known at all as humble. Let all the world know that you are Christ’s with humble, acts grounded in love.
Let all the world know that you are Christ’s by your love.