Sermon: Proper 17 RCL C – The Lowest Chair

The podcast is available here.

Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash.  

Following morning prayers at the monastery, an older monk prostrates himself before the altar, and cries out, “O God. Before You, I am nothing!”

A second monk is so moved by this demonstration of piety that he immediately follows suit, throwing himself to the floor beside his brother and crying, “O God! Before you, I am nothing!”

In the ensuing silence, a shuffling is heard in the back of the chapel. A third monk jumps from his seat, prostrates himself in the isle and cries, “O God! Before You, I am nothing!”

Seeing this, the the first monk turned to the second and whispers, “So, look who thinks he’s nothing?”

Just when you thought you were being humble… you humiliate yourself.

Like all of Jesus’ teachings, today’s Gospel is like pitching a stone into a pond: the ever expanding ripples speak to more and more people, until we find ourselves caught up in the message.

At first glance, the parable of those jostling for the best seat appears to be about table etiquette and humility, but this is not a new teaching, especially to the religious leaders who were gathered around the table.  Knowing the scriptures, they would have immediately recalled Proverbs 25:6-7:

Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence

    or stand in the place of the great,

for it is better to be told, “Come up here,”

    than to be put lower in the presence of a noble. 

Good advice and etiquette.  Got it.  And wouldn’t you hate to have been the guy that pushed his way to the front so that he could have the best seat at this particular dinner party.  Jesus’ words might have stung that person a bit, but given the context and the audience, everyone would have felt a sting, because they all knew that just a short time before this gathering Jesus has said, “Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces.” (Luke 11:43)  Not only were the religious leaders pushing themselves forward in the eyes of others, but they also pushed themselves forward in the eyes of God.  As we learn in the Gospel lesson we hear on Ash Wednesday: the religious leaders like to sound the trumpets to make a show of their giving, they pray loudly in the synagogue and on the street corners, when they fast, they make a big show of their ‘misery.’  All of this to say, ‘Look at me world, look at me God, and see how special I am.  I deserve a seat of honor at the table.’  But the sting of this teaching does not stop there.  It takes in even more.

We know that following Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, Christianity began to spread, however, it was primarily a sect within Judaism, but in the Acts of the Apostles we see how it began to spread among the Gentiles.  As more and more Gentiles became believers, the Jewish Christians began to ask themselves, ‘What are we going to do with them?’  There were many arguments over whether or not these Gentile converts needed to practice the Mosaic Law, be circumcised and so on.  We know how it worked out in the end—Paul became the great Apostle to the Gentiles and even Peter came to understand that the faith was open to all, but initially, the Jewish Christians thought they were ‘better’ than the rest.  After all, they were first.  They were the Chosen People, therefore, they should have the seat of honor.  So Paul would have to teach: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:23)  There is no seat of honor, you are all honored because of Christ Jesus.

It is a good thing that we are not like this.  We never see ourselves deserving of the seat of honor above others.  How does it go?  “The Church of England: Loving Jesus with a Slight Air of Superiority Since 597 a.d.”  I’m pretty sure the same can be said of Episcopalians, just change the year to 1789.

We push to have ourselves ahead of others and to have the seat of honor, but, in all this, there was one question that kept coming up in my mind: what’s so bad about the lowest seat?  That one that’s in the back of the banquet hall next to the bathroom door that squeaks every time someone goes in or out.  No, perhaps it is not the best seat in the house, but why can’t we be happy with it?

Some of you will likely roll your eyes at the fact that I’ve never read or heard of this guy before: David Brooks.  He is a commentator that writes for the New York Times.  In 2014, he participated in a Christian forum, The Gathering, and gave a talk titled, “How to be Religious in the Public Square.”  He says, “In 1950, the Gallup organization asked high school seniors, ‘Are you a very important person?’ And at that point 12 percent said yes. They asked the same question in 2005 and 80 percent said, ‘Yes, I am a very important person.’”  He goes on to say that there is this “great desire for fame. Fame used to be low on a value. Now fame is the second-most desired thing in young people.  They did a study, ‘Would you rather be president of Harvard or Justin Bieber’s personal assistant, a celebrity’s personal assistant?’ And of course by 3 to 1 people would rather be Justin Bieber’s personal assistant.”  He adds, “Though to be fair I asked the president of Harvard, and she would rather be Justin Bieber’s personal assistant.”  His conclusion, “This is an achievement culture. A culture of people striving and trying to win success.”  A culture of people striving and trying to win the seat of honor.

Brooks then goes on to discuss the book Lonely Man of Faith, by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who talks about two opposing natures, referring to them as Adam One and Adam Two (not to be confused with Adam 12).  The Rabbi states, “Adam One wants to conquer the world. Adam Two wants to obey a calling and serve the world. Adam One asks How things work. Adam Two asks why things exist and what we’re here for.  Adam One wants to venture forth. Adam Two wants to return to roots.  Adam One’s motto is ‘Success.’  Adam Two’s motto is ‘Charity. Love. Redemption.’” (Source)  In the context of our Gospel reading, Adam One wants to sit at the head of the table, next to the guest of honor… No.  That’s wrong.  Adam One wants to be the guest of honor, to be famous and only if that fails, will Adam One be satisfied with being in near proximity of fame and perceived honor, i.e. Justin Bieber’s personal assistant.  Adam Two doesn’t care much for Justin Bieber and will happily take a seat anywhere. 

What is the difference between the two?  The obvious answer (and a correct one) is humility.  From the book of Proverbs: 

The fear of the Lord is instruction in wisdom,

    and humility comes before honor. (Proverbs 15:33) 

Where does humility begin?  With God.  Humility is a grace from God that allows us to submit our lives to the Lord.  Most pray for such a grace everyday, although we may not recognize it as such: “Thy will be done.”  Humility begins by submitting your will to the will of God and saying with Jesus, “Not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42)  It comes, as humbling as it may sound, by recognizing that perhaps God’s will, at this stage in your life, is for you to be at the table next to the bathroom door.  

Adam Two seeks only the will of God.  Adam Two recognizes their place in the world—and understand this isn’t about societal status, money (or the lack there of), things of that nature, but is about being comfortable in your own skin—Adam Two finds happiness in who they are and where they are, whether being served in the seat of honor or in the kitchen, standing over the sink and eating leftovers.  My friend Thomas à Kempis writes about this.  Speaking to God the Father, he says, “Anyone who loves You … would be as peaceful and satisfied in the last place as in the first, and as willing to be despised, unknown and forgotten, as to be honored by others and to have more fame than they. He should prefer Your will and the love of Your honor to all else.” (Imitation of Christ, Bk. 3, Ch. 22)  Put another way: Adam Two, doesn’t care where he sits, he’s just happy to have been invited and he’s delighted to see you, whether you’re sitting next to him or at the head table.  The joy and happiness comes in recognizing that no matter what table you are sitting at, the Guest of Honor, Jesus, is sitting next to you.

Don’t worry about the seats of honor, instead, humble yourself so that you may seek, know, and follow the will of God.  In God’s will is wisdom, peace, and the true happiness you are searching for.

Let us pray: Lord, if what we seek be according to your will, then let it come to pass and let success attend the outcome. But if not, let it not come to pass. Do not leave us to our own devices, for you know how unwise we can be. Keep us safe under your protection Lord, and in your own gentle way, guide us and rule us as you know best.  Amen.

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