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Low Life and High Life, Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 1, 2013 at Shepherd by the Sea, Gualala, CA

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Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 1, 2013

Proverbs 25:6-7 Psalm 112 Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 Luke 14:1,7-14

Low Life and High Life

We hear how Jesus teaches the Pharisees how to take lower places for the sake of humility and for the life of the gospel whom to invite to their dinners. But often the lessons that we have for Sunday worship leave out verses. This morning it says that Jesus was being watched closely, because the Pharisees were hoping to catch him in a mistake. You will see that he was watching them too. In the verses left out, Jesus heals a man who has dropsy. Of course, to the dismay of the Pharisees, Jesus heals the man on the Sabbath in a way that he healed the person with a withered hand before.[1]  For Jesus it seems that healing cannot wait. But our commentary shows that the sickness that Jesus healed had symbolic significance. What would dropsy symbolize? I’ve known about what leprosy symbolizes: in this disease our nerves die away and we have no more feeling; thus this disease can represent insensitive people, people without empathy and feeling for what others go through. My understanding leprosy in this way came from the former editor of the Atlantic, Norman Cousins, who wrote Anatomy of an Illness. He deals with leprosy in his chapter “Pain is Not the Enemy.”[2]

Dropsy, in terms of its symbolism, represented being insatiable, because even though a body is already retaining way too much fluid, a person still experiences an insatiable thirst. In ancient times this disease made them think of the greed of money-lovers.[3] In this gathering of Pharisees Jesus notices how arrogant and insatiable for honor the Pharisees were as they vied with each other to get the most honorable seats at the banquet.

Jesus was a keen observer of humanity and he through the struggle for the good seats at a banquet he takes advantage of a teachable moment: He helps them see that those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who lower themselves will become exalted. Except that they were judging him and how could Jesus teach them anything, if they thought so much more of themselves and their status than they thought of him?

If you have seen Woody Allen’s new movie, “Blue Jasmine,” you will see how he depicts a woman who thinks too highly of herself, without the ability to become honest with herself and be a real human being. Someone felt like she lived in a glass house, which shattered into pieces, and then there was nobody there. When we chalk ourselves up to being more than we really are, then we become guilty of self-deception. She ended up just telling outright lies. My father used to say, “Everyone loves to fool another, but best of all, everyone loves to fool him or herself.” We used to use the word “con” in the inner city. “Best of all we love to con ourselves.” “Everyone loves to deceive another, but best of all, we love to deceive ourselves.”

The problem with honor is that it has to be earned and earning it takes a whole lot of self-denial, a whole lot of work, a whole lot of blood, sweat, and tears. We have to really be able to question and examine ourselves and keep ourselves in line. We have to take Socrates to heart, who said we had to know ourselves. Often we want honor and all its privileges without the burden of responsibility and all that hard work. I’d love to be a wonderful trumpet player, but I don’t want to practice. If only I could win the lottery, then I could be a real cop-out and be rich! Like so many of us Christians we want the promises of the gospel but we plant the cross squarely on somebody else’s shoulder-blades. For a good while anti-Semitic Christians have planted the cross they should be carrying on the Jews. Just back a little while in our history, we preached the privileges of Christianity and crucified Blacks by lynching them. The stand-your-ground laws make Black men feel very unsafe. We often use the poor and oppressed as a cushion between us and our suffering. That dawned on me over the many years I worked in Lutheran churches of African Descent. If we don’t feel the pain we are causing others in our society then how can we self-correct? Feeling pain is crucial. To get back into Norman Cousin’s Book, Anatomy of an Illness: a leper boy of twelve watched how a doctor could not turn the key in a rusty old lock. The boy turned the key for him and the doctor thought it must be the strength of lepers! But in examining the boy’s hand, the flesh of the boy’s thumb and forefinger were cut to the bone. But the boy was unaware of it, because he could not feel any pain. Leprosy kills the nerves.[4] It is also important to feel the pain and suffering caused by our mistakes and injustices in our society. How else can we correct them?

Socrates said that the more you know the more you know that you don’t know. On the other hand, the less you know the more you think you know. And on a deeper level that also goes for our personal growth and maturity: the more righteous we are the more sinful we know ourselves to be. We have to be Kyrie Christians, praying, “Lord, have mercy upon us.”

So we have to rejoice when those who are lowly and downtrodden are lifted up in our society, even when we are sent empty away, when we have been used to riding high. This is very difficult, because we have to start carrying our own cross and even the ones that others refuse to bear. When we get left behind, life becomes very difficult; but suddenly we get our soul back and realize that trying to be highfalutin we lost touch with what is really important in life.

Inviting each other to our homes for dinner together is really important. It was so meaningful to have had dinner with Linda and Andy last time. It put my wife and me in touch with what life is like up here in Gualala. We have trouble inviting people to our place. I always have to clear all my papers and books off the dining room table and we have so much clutter we don’t often invite people over. But after we do, we feel so good. We have a good meal and we build each other up with mutual conversation and consolation. Luther calls this mutual conversation and consolation that we have with one another one of the most important ways we participate in God’s grace.[5] He lists it up there with preaching the gospel throughout the world, hearing the word of forgiveness spoken, with baptism, Holy Communion, and the power of the keys. That’s the importance he gives the mutual conversation and consolation of brothers [and sisters.][6] and such conversation usually works best over some good food, a good dinner. I guess we somehow relate best with each other through our stomachs. So like in Holy Communion, we invite each other and have dinner together. In these conversations, when we listen deeply and speak with sincerity, we increase the number of our relationships and their quality, attaining more self-knowledge and understanding about what God would have us do with our lives.

So it is precisely in a banquet that Jesus first measures the maturity of the people and then offers a remedy for the pride they feel. The problem for some of us is that we think more of ourselves than where we really are, but there are others of us who think less of themselves than they really are and never live out the gifts and talents that God has given them. That’s what Paul Tillich meant by having the “courage to be.” God has to lift such people up inside themselves: “Lift up your hearts!” Those who think too highly of themselves have to be lowered by God inside themselves, but it is so much better when we do it ourselves so God does not have to push us down.

Now Jesus was not a politician. He did not do thousand-dollar-a-plate dinners in a fund-raising attempt to gain power and prestige.  His remedy was to invite to dinner the lame, the poor, the blind, the homeless, those who are down and out. The remedy was to invite those who could not give you anything in return, except heartache, suffering, and further expense. The Pharisees took offense at Jesus because he ate with tax-collectors and sinners. The name “Pharisee” itself evidently comes from the word for separation. They wanted to separate themselves from others in order to be above others. “Thank God, I’m not like this tax collector. I fast, I pray three times a day, etc.” We now say, “Thank God, I’m not like that Pharisee. No one is quite as humble as I am.”

No, the point is to be open to a relationship that takes you out of your comfort-zone. But a warning: Always be safe. I’m not saying to be foolish. Always have your eyes open. Always also be security conscious. Working in the inner-city, you soon learned that you had to be that way.

Let me tell you a story. We began to feel that our Thanksgiving and Christmas meals with only family and a few friends were selfish. So we started to have those meals in the church with the homeless also inviting the lonely in the congregation as well. Now to have poor people as the objects of our charity is one thing. To sit down, eat and relate with them is quite another. It makes you have to deal with the fact that you share humanity together; that you are equal to them and they are equal to you, just that you see they are not. We have so much more going for us than some people. I remember how people in a wonderful home sat opposite people who lived under a freeway overpass. One woman, who often wore furs, sat opposite a fellow who must have taken hormones because he had breasts, and she struggled through the whole meal to figure out if it was a man or woman she was talking with.

I usually bused the people in. When I drove down Surf Avenue in our 1966 GMC bus, I’d stop in front of a prostitute and say, “How about taking a break and having a wonderful Christmas meal?” And many would come. We were certainly a motley group. We never required them to attend a service in order to get the meal, and people from half-way houses helped cook it. But because they were homeless and wanted out of the cold, they would say, “Pastor, how about a service?” They wanted to stay warm and feel good a little while longer.

You know there was nothing like those meals. They were filled with grace and we continued doing them for many years and they brought many an incredible ministry experience filled with grace. It was because we sat at the table with the least of these, like Jesus suggested that we do, people who had nothing to give and really that meal just made them forget their troubles for a very little while. But here’s the secret that Jesus was telling us. It is precisely through those people who have nothing and whom we consider to be nothing, that God chooses to give himself, which is far, far better than receiving opportunities and benefits from the people who have a lot to give that we could have invited. What you discover, is that when you invite the losers in our society, you then win the pearl of great price. God himself, God herself takes a place at your table, gives you back your own heart, fills your soul with meaning, makes you into the Mensch you were intended to be.

So now that heart of compassion won’t let you go. The Hebrews lesson lays the need to give hospitality on our hearts, especially to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels. Makes us suffer with those in prison, in our overcrowded penitentiaries. Some prisoners are into their fifth week of a hunger strike. For arbitrary reasons, prisoners are placed into solitary confinement and, I kid you not, in this land of the brave and the free, left there for twenty to thirty years! For people who are very sensitive and need other people, that is torture, cruel and unusual punishment. In Hebrews it says, “Remember those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.” The heart that Jesus gives us feel the pain of immigrants being deported and separated from their children, wives, husbands and families. Meanwhile others cry, build a higher and longer wall to separate us! Especially churches should be sanctuaries for the undocumented and what’s more churches ought to demand that our communities become sanctuaries for them as well. They did not cause this great recession and most of those who did, received big bonuses for the way they gamed our financial system. But we had dropsy too, that unquenchable greed for easy money on the stock market or easy equity on our houses.

Ah, God must have loved sinners, because God made so many of us. That text ends: do not neglect to do good and share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

In our pastors’ bible study Pastor Lucy from Resurrection Lutheran in Oakland said, “In the great banquet, underneath it all, over it all, through it all, God is giving seats away freely by grace. Every seat is a good seat. Every seat is a seat of honor.” Let me end by citing Brian Stoffregen, who writes an online commentary:

Yet, Luke (and only Luke) tells us that Jesus ate with Pharisees,[7] but each time he eats with them there are controversies: about the “sinful” woman who anoints Jesus; about proper ritual washings before eating; and the healing and teachings in our text. Apparently Jesus (the glutton that he was) would eat (and probably drink) with anybody — perhaps even with you and me![8] Amen!!!


[1] Luke 6: 6-11.

[2] Norman Cousins, Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient: Reflections on Healing and Regeneration: How one man proved your mind can heal your body, (New York: Bantam Books, W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1981), p. 89ff.

[3] Brian Stoffregen, CrossMarks: http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/luke14x1.htm

[4] Norman Cousins, Anatomy of an Illness, pp. 98-99.

[5] From Luther’s Smalcald Articles, Theodore G. Tappert, translator and ed., The Book of Concord, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), p. 310.

[6]Ibid.

[7] (Luke 7: 36; 11: 37; 14: 1).

[8] Brian Stoffregen, CrossMarks.

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Written by peterkrey

September 3, 2013 at 11:47 pm

Posted in Selected Sermons

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