Low Life a Sermon for Pentecost 15, August 28, 2016
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost August 28, 2016
Proverbs 25:6-7 Psalm 112 Hebrews 13:1-8,15-16 Luke 14:1,7-14
What wonderful lessons we are blessed with this morning! I usually read Brian Stoffregen to prepare for my sermon and reading his online commentary this time makes my cup overflow with thoughts to share. But my thoughts, of course, are not important. That’s why we pray, “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer. Amen.” To quote Luther, “May I preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, so that with my bodily voice I bring Christ into your hearts, so that you may form him in yourselves.” “And again, may I preach the Gospel in such a way that you hear your God speaking to you.” Not my thoughts, but Jesus Christ is the Word of God and “when you hear the word you become like the word: pure, good, and just.”
Let me begin by saying that humility is not the way of salvation, but Christ is. Otherwise the lowly could not be exalted. But humility helps us be able to grow. When we identify with children as old as we might be, we will still be able to grow and mature more. Where can we go if we think we have already arrived? If we already know it all, how will we be able to learn anything? When my students had trouble understanding something, abstract logic, for example, and I became impatient with them, I turned to something I could not understand myself and struggled with it so that I realized what they were going through.
In our pastors’ bible study, one pastor was brought to tears when he read the Hebrews lesson:
Keep loving one another as brothers and sisters. Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Continue to remember those in prison – [we have locked up two million or so] – remember those in prison, as if you were together with them in prison; [Imagine the torture you would experience in solitary confinement?] and remember the mistreated as if you yourself were suffering.
When reading Scripture it is better for us to identify with the sinners rather than the saints, the righteous. We need to identify with the imprisoned and the mistreated (tortured in another scripture version)and we have to keep on loving and showing hospitality.
The healing of the man with dropsy is left out of our lesson. The commentaries explained that a person filled up with fluid, that looked to them like a person water-logged, who still experienced unquenchable thirst. The symbolic significance of the disease made them think of someone incredibly rich, yet money-hungry. What is the symbolic significance of cancer? I wish I knew.
Once when I was in Bali, Indonesia, (leaving Germany, I went around the world, over the Pacific to come back to the U.S.A.) the people there said to me: you consider millionaires, today we would say billionaires, as the most important people in your society. They are the ones you look up to. We look up to the artists, musicians, scholars, and authors as the most important; those who make a cultural contribution enriching our lives.
Jesus says to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind to our banquets, because they cannot repay us. Compare that with political fund-raising dinners, where you are invited if you can pay $60,000 or more a plate. Many political donations, of course, bring much better returns than the stock market.
Jesus is speaking about pure giving. Giving that is done just because there is a need, not to receive brownie points, or some reward, like getting into heaven.
Once when I was pastoring in Berlin, a woman in a nursing home died. Her name was Frieda Frischbutter. Her name is funny, because it means “fresh butter.” When I gave her communion, she would say, “Thank you, Herr Doctor,” because she thought I was her doctor. She had dementia and had been completely forgotten. The fellow driving the hearse to the cemetery told me, “There’s no need to do a service. Just come along and say a prayer at the grave.” Something in me rang a bell. I called my nursing home worship helpers together. Today they would be: [I named the three in our congregation that now help me with nursing home worship.] We went to the cemetery and performed a full funeral service. Suddenly we were overwhelmed: a woman who had nothing, not even her life, who was completely forgotten, even by herself; God had not forgotten and it was through her that God gave us the most precious gift on earth, God’s very self. The presence of God around that grave filled and overpowered us as we experienced the compassion of God, whose plan it is to include everyone, even those we have completely forgotten, in the law of love. In those who have nothing, who have even lost their lives, God encounters us in the way that:
In the poor, we receive God’s riches,
In the imprisoned, God’s freedom,
In the confused, God’s clarity,
In the lost, God shows us the way,
In the mentally distressed, a healthy and sound mind,
In the dead, the fulfillment of life.
I wrote that way back then [in 1974]. It is something like the prayer of St. Francis: “It’s in giving that we receive, in dying that we receive eternal life.”
One way to look at humility is to think that we might not have to take ourselves too seriously. I used to talk very thoughtlessly – maybe I still do – and people would laugh at what I said. Then I pretended that I had meant it to be a joke; but I had just not thought about what I was saying. My mother would tell me, if they laugh at you, then laugh with them, and then they are laughing with you and not at you.
The commentary said the name “Pharisee” meant to separate from. They separated from common people in order to be holy. They did not want to be among the riffraff. A very difficult woman, a long time member of our St. Paul’s Church in Coney Island, who always wore expensive furs, walked into our church, looked around and said, “This is low life!” and walked out. One time she came out to me as worship was about to start, and insisted that I make a young man in the congregation remove his hat. I went in and it was a young Black girl. “Don’t you see it’s a girl!” She would not admit her error. I could tell you many more stories about her. “She has been leading the singing in the congregation,” the editor wrote in our newsletter. “The last we heard she was leading the singing by a whole verse.”
In Coney Island there the congregation used to do Minstrel shows, making their faces black, meanwhile they were very bigoted and racist. One Black woman, who could pass for White was received into membership in 1956 and beside her name in parenthesis was written: (colored). She kept a kerchief over her hair to hide the fact that it was kinky. For her birthday a Norwegian couple gave her a pail and a mop. I tell you no lies. She never forgave them. I got her into the church council and she became the vice president. They never forgave me. I cannot repeat some of the slurs they said. Because my salary was paid by the Board of American Missions, now it would be the Department of Outreach, they could not stop my salary payments.
In some eyes, we might have been low-life, but to God we were high-life. Jesus, the Pharisees said, ate with tax collectors and sinners.
In India students who were Brahman, the highest caste befriended me and accompanied me on a boat-ride on the Ganges River in the Holy city of Varanasi. They then invited me home to eat with them. I found myself eating alone in a room, while they all ate in another. The women were also not eating. I asked them why: “When you eat, we are filled.” One of the women told me.
The Pharisees called Jesus a glutton and a drunkard, who would probably eat with anybody! Imagine, he might even have a beer with you and me!
Eating and drinking together is so very important and what is this sermon but reaching each other’s hearts to raise up the living Christ within ourselves before we receive the bread and the wine, the body and blood of Christ. In the Schmalcald Articles, Luther said, one way to participate in God’s grace is in the mutual conversation and consolation of brothers and sisters. That can happen in a potluck, for example, or say even in our coffee hour! Amen.
 Timothy Lull, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, p. 319.
 From the Martin Luther, “Freedom of a Christian” in Philip and Peter Krey, editors, Luther’s Spirituality, (New York: Paulist Press, 2007), page 72.
 Ibid., page 268.
 Luke 14:2-6.