Here's my sermon from September 2 at St. Mark's, Palo Alto:
At age 10, I auditioned for my first play at the Palo Alto Children’s Theatre. It was one of the Hotdog Suppertime Shows, notoriously campy, especially back then before they had built the fancy outdoor stage. It was called “The King’s Creampuffs,” and I assumed, because my mother had raised me to have faith in myself and I grew up as an only child, that I was in the running for the role of the princess. I don’t remember feeling anxious as the director began to read the cast list. I do remember being shocked that my name was one of the first read, in the list of “ladies in waiting.”
I was devastated, and I was angry. I clearly remember lying on my stomach and pounding the floor in tears when I got home. My mom and my piano teacher, who had arrived for my lesson, coaxed me up off the floor. Once we got to the piano, my teacher Mr. Michael told me a story. He had been in the Navy. He said that when he first arrived on his ship all the new recruits were set at knot-tying tasks, which seemed boring and pointless. Many of them complained. But, Mr. Michael said, it was the ones who applied themselves cheerfully to the knot-tying and mastered it who were promoted to more interesting and challenging jobs.
Now, I see what he meant; I’ve lived his parable over and over in my life since then. When I picture the Pharisee’s dinner party in today’s gospel I think of Mr. Michael in the navy. The guests come in, there’s probably an awkward pause for a minute as they wait to see whether the host has plans for who is to sit where. When the host is silent, they choose for themselves. Watching their movements, Jesus tells them always to choose the last place. If you sit at the place of honor you may be disgraced if someone more important than you arrives later and you have to move. But if you sit at the lowest place, you may be honored by being asked to move up higher. Jesus says “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Notice that, at least at a dinner party or on a Navy vessel, the feedback loop is pretty short. The point is not that the humble will get into heaven, though that may be true as well. The point is that humility puts us in a better place immediately.
But wait a second. Speaking of heavenly dinner parties, aren’t we told that Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father? Aren’t we to aspire to that? I stick with the boat analogy—it's okay to want to be captain someday, but you become a good sailor by paying attention to what's in front of you. Preacher and writer Barbara Crafton wrestled with how to balance ambition and humility in a recent blog post. She says:
My parishioners want to advance in their companies and become more and more successful, and everyone admires their initiative, a priest told me recently. But if a priest admits that he wants to become a cardinal rector, he's criticized as being too ambitious, as if it were a bad thing.
A cardinal rector. Cardinal meaning "central" -- literally, one upon whom other things hinge. One of the priests in a diocese with whom a bishop had better consult if he or she wants a project to succeed there. One whose church is large, wealthy in comparison with other parishes and has been both of those things for a long time.
There won't be dozens of cardinal rectors in a diocese -- everybody can't be central. The rest will lead churches more modest in size, or challenged in different ways. Perhaps, if they are effective in leading these churches, they will become cardinal rectors someday.
But they won't be effective leaders of their smaller parishes if their chief ambition is to leave them. The primary difference between worldly ambition and spiritual fidelity is the willingness to center one's energy in the place in which one finds oneself, and to spend the sum of one's faithfulness on the community gathered in that place. If you can do that, it will be enough, and the future will take care of itself.
Faithfulness and stability. Ambition is harmful partly because it leads us away from the present moment. I think Crafton hits the nail on the head—we know we're on the wrong track when our ambition is to leave and move on to something “better.” Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who keeps looking behind and beyond you, searching for someone else to talk to, someone more important than you? I ran across a letter dating from eighth grade, in which a friend first pointed out to me that I'm sometimes guilty of that kind of disrespect and thoughtlessness. Her letter said, “you have certain special people (like my favorite teachers) and you'll run away from whoever you're talking to to go talk to these special people.” She was right—I would dash across the quad without so much as a “hold that thought.” It seemed more important to get an extra few seconds with the favorite teacher, who could confer status, validation and approval, than to be present to my friends and actively care about them.
I wonder about the relationships present at the Pharisee’s party. Did this group of people know and like each other? Or was the gathering stiff and formal among strangers, where each guest played his status card as a way of claiming power in the group? My sense is that who had which place at the table wouldn't be very important if they were friends. Biology says that organisms are more likely to cooperate with each other when they expect to interact again in the future. You're more likely to compromise with your spouse than with the stranger who wants the same parking spot, or place in line at the bank or grocery store. The relationhip with the stranger, our instincts tell us, isn't as important as getting our errands done faster. Those instincts are the beginning of preoccupation with status, of the sin of not paying attention, of pride.
Our first reading today, from the book of Sirach, says “the beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart has withdrawn from its Maker.” What does this mean? For me it's a reminder that I am not an island. I am best able to be humble and generous (and effective) when I feel I'm in the presence of the divine. When I'm not, when my heart is somehow withdrawn from itself and from connection to God, I can hurt those I love.
Today's gospel challenges me to live my life in such a way that I encounter fewer “strangers” (those whom I can justifiably dismiss or disrespect because they're not important), more brothers and sisters, and more friends. Jesus asks me to put everyone in the category of the friend to whom I must listen, and take joy in listening. I think this was one of St. Benedict's reasons for creating a fourth central vow for monks in his community: along with poverty, chastity, and obedience, he asked them to make a vow of stability. Stability means enduring relationships, it means exactly what Barbara Crafton meant about “centering one's energy in the place in which one finds oneself.” Bishop Marc said earlier this year that “unparalleled mobility in terms of ... transportation, the rapidity of job changes, address changes, etc. may mean that stability is more important now than it ever has been.” He says the challenges ahead of us in our ratrace, globalized world will require “the virtue of stability to be something for which we pray.”
Taking the last seat at the table, though, is only half of the instruction we get in today's gospel, and it's the easy half. Jesus also says we are to invite to our tables those who cannot invite us to theirs: “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.” Maybe you hear this, as I do, and squirm a little and glance up at the ceiling and hope this second part can be someone else's job. It's similar to hearing in the letter to the Hebrews, “remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.”
I think our squirming is exactly what Jesus our redeemer and brother had in mind. The gospel of Luke has been called the “gospel of the great reversal,” meaning that according to Luke the intention of Christ and Christianity was to turn the world upside down. Such a turning cannot be accomplished, and will not be satisfied, by a rearranging of dinner party chairs. In Luke, Jesus' prophetic word begins before his birth, with Mary's song we call the Magnificat. A Celtic version of the Magnificat, The Canticle of the Turning, captures the magnificent hope of the gospel:
Though I am small, my God, my all, you work great things in me,
And your mercy will last from the depths of the past to the end of the age to be.
Your very name puts the proud to shame, and to those who would for you yearn,
You will show your might, put the strong to flight, for the world is about to turn.
How does the turning happen? God's mercy is what lets us face our sins, our pride, and lift them up to be transformed. Since our own lives are part of an organic whole, all the communities in which we stand, our transformation depends upon the transformation of the world. Healing ourselves and healing the world can only happen if they happen simultaneously. The gospel cycle is one in which power keeps moving, those who humble themselves will be exalted and vice versa. The gospel comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.
Last year on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, I attended a community forum in East Palo Alto. Community leaders were asked which issues they felt the most passionate about, which issues are to us what integration was to King and civil rights leaders? Everyone spoke about youth, how the youth of a community will always be a force for change, and which direction that change points depends on the community's priorities. One panel member challenged the audience: he said if everyone present made one or two highschool-aged friends, and invited them to their house regularly, East Palo Alto could be transformed before their eyes. A world with fewer strangers.A world that Jesus envisioned.
Our sacred stories today advise us on how to act at the dinner table. They also ask us to stay mindful of who's at the table and who's not. We each have an individual Christian journey in which our lives get turned around over and over, like following the twisting path on the labyrinth. We also have a collective Christian journey. On both paths, we are continually called to take part in the gospel cycle. We are called to be both powerful and humble. At the dinner table and at the policy table, we are called to step up when we've been quiet and step back when we've been dominating, and encourage others to do the same.
A friend of mine says if being a Christian is easy for you, you're not doing it right. We've set ourselves a huge task in the healing of ourselves and our world. We must hold on to each other as we travel, to the promise that the kingdom is coming, and to all that lifts our hearts. Another verse of the Celtic magnificat promises:
Though the nations rage from age to age, we remember who holds us fast:
God's mercy must deliver us from the conqueror's crushing grasp.
This saving word that our forebears heard is the promise which holds us bound,
'Til the spear and rod can be crushed by God, who is turning the world around.
Glory to God, source of all being, incarnate word, and holy spirit. Amen.