Monday, September 24, 2007

Sept. 23 Sermon: It's not fair!

Sermon Texts:
1 Tim 2: 1-8
Matthew 20: 1-16

We live in a culture that has its roots firmly planted in fairness. You get out what you put in—You reap what you sow. Some attribute the economic success of the United States to the “Protestant Work Ethic.” The idea that we are masters of our own ship that was cultivated by the Puritans who arrived in the 17th century.
The liberation of the Bible from the priest and into the hands and languages of the laypeople was a powerful force of the Reformation, and it led to strengthened sense of individuality and personal responsibility. Indeed, many scholars say the Enlightenment itself was planted in the enhanced philosophy of the individual, which was a byproduct of the translation of the Bible into the vernacular. A result of the enlightenment of the 17th and 18th century was the notion of “individual rights” which led to the democratic revolutions. Individual rights as you know sit on a see saw with individual responsibilities. The balance of the two is an agreed upon notion of fairness.
This scripture passage has chafed me since I was a kid. Perhaps it’s that it gnaws at my modern sensibilities of “fairness.” It’s the same thing with the prodigal son’s brother who sticks around and helps out on the farm, or the other sheep who stay in the fold while the shepherd goes off looking for the lost sheep. I don’t remember being an extremely cynical child, but for some reason I always sided with the person who was seemingly wronged in the parable. Those who showed up first and worked all day DESERVED a better pay than those who showed up and worked an hour in the coolness of the evening. Why would the shepherd leave unattended those 99 sheep who had enough sense NOT to go wandering off? The father who rushed out to welcome back his wayward son who showed him no respect and spent all his inheritance in a binge seemed to be revealing an embarrassing degree of FAVORITISM in my book—his other son stuck by him the entire time and he didn’t get a big party?!
Part of me still wonders what kind of time this hypothetical landowner had the next day when he went out into the town square early in the morning and tried to recruit some workers for his vineyard. He likely wouldn’t have any success rounding people up until 5pm if you ask me! Of course, Jesus mentions no “next day” in his parable.
No—Jesus boldly proclaims the beauty of a God who transcends or perhaps simply pre-dates our concept of fairness or “right and wrong.” The landowner who is recruiting help and paying what he wishes inhabits a story where there is no “next day.” Instead, the generosity that he offers, and in turn the unbelievable grace that his generosity points to in our God has no concern for the “next day” when he may or may not be able to get any help. The generosity and grace is ultimately tied to the present moment. It is found in every breath we take and has no concern for our past or our future. IT is given to us because it is a product of God’s eternal nature.
Jesus continuously reminds us that we are given grace not according to our faithfulness, but according to God’s ever abundant generosity. Though it may offend my sense of right and wrong, Jesus tells us that God’s generosity extends beyond the boundaries of fairness. Is this a welcome word? Is this Good News? It isn’t if we consider Fairness to be God’s chief virtue. Here’s a thought—perhaps our cultural picture of a God who judges us eternally based on the life we lived, or who rewards hard work and lasting faithfulness with all the bounty we can comprehend is simply a byproduct of our fairly young and fairly immature culture. The Gospel lesson tells us of a God who is radically UNFAIR—Our God might be accused of being na├»ve by our worldly standards. The indiscriminating outpouring of grace and love toward all who come with open hands is a beautiful picture—but we would probably call someone who enacted this kind of ethical standard in our day and age an idealist.
Perhaps my problem with this story and the others is my own haughty assumption that I can even identify with the early workers. My concentration on the “fairness” of the passage probably means that I, consciously or not, believe that I am an “early worker” when the reality is that I’m probably showing up at around 4:55 to the market square to look for work. While I may be more prone to grumbling about fairness, I should actually be rejoicing at the undeserved grace I’ve been given.
Perhaps the reality is that we’re all showing up late to put in an hour’s work. In the cultural context in which this Gospel lesson was written, Gentiles would probably have taken comfort to know that even those who had shown up late to the game were given the same reward as those who had been part of the project for so long. The God of Christianity was and is the God of the Hebrews. There was competition between Jewish adherents of Jesus and Gentile adherents of Jesus. In a way, this parable spoke to the early church in a way that still speaks to us today. Those Gentiles who were new to the faith, and thus “late comers” to the vineyard, were given the same reward as those who had practiced the faith of the fathers for their whole life. Matthew gives his audience a fresh vision of the radical inclusiveness of this God we worship. We aren’t rewarded for how long we’ve believed: There are no company watches given in God’s Kingdom—we are rewarded by God’s grace. God’s grace can’t be quantified into a little grace for you and a much larger portion of grace for you. God’s grace is immeasurable and infinite in every circumstance it is given.
We are all recipients of this grace—if we must think in terms of “equal measure” then the story tells us it is an equal measure. But the truth is that it is quantified and multiplied by what we do with it. Jesus also tells the story of the talents, where a landowner gives talents to each of his slaves, and they bring glory to their master based on what they DO with those talents. If we share the grace we are given with others, we multiply that grace in the world, and our master is glorified because of it.
We have such a bad habit of drawing lines around ourselves and between ourselves. There are those of us who are old Christians and new Christians, there are those of us who have “gotten what was coming to us” and there are those of us who are living “charmed lives.” There are insiders and outsiders, latecomers and early risers. Our cultural norms reinforce these lines of distinction and convince us to act in accordance with their rules and laws.
But we have a God who refuses to pay attention to such things. God extends grace to every living soul on the face of the earth. There is no contract to sign, there are no hours to put in, there is nothing on this earth that can squeeze out more or less grace than what is being offered us when we draw our first breath. God loves us all to our cores at that moment. We are loved as much at our first moment, without doing a thing about it, as we are loved at our last moment, with a life of service to God behind us. God loves you and me as much as He loves his greatest servants, like Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, or John Wesley.
God loves you and me as much as he loves our greatest enemies, or those people we believe don’t deserve God’s grace. The story of the generous landowner tells us that God’s love is radically and eternally present and pouring over each of our lives. The story of the talents gives us a deeper perspective in that we realize that we must open our hands and receive God’s outpouring of love. We must be filled and in turn spill over with God’s redeeming love. If we are given God’s grace and talents and then bury them in our hearts for only our consolation and hope, then we are like the workers who bury their talents in the ground, waiting for the master’s return.
If we delight in the grace given us at the end of the day instead of grumbling about God’s generosity—if we take our “earnings” and share them with our neighbors, God’s grace will multiply in the world through us. We will become conduits of God’s grace! Thanks be to God! Amen

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Sept. 16 Sermon: True Holiness

Micah 6: 6-8
Matthew 6: 1-15

It is very clear that the idea of holiness was the main concern of two young men at Oxford two and a half centuries ago named John and Charles Wesley. The two named their student religious club “The Holy Club,” and their meticulous attention to applying a holy regiment to their lives earned this club the nickname “the Methodists” among those who derided their efforts.
In John Wesley’s “Notes,” Wesley writes in a question/answer format: “What was the rise of Methodism, so called? In 1729, two young men, reading the Bible, saw they could not be saved without holiness, followed after it, and incited others so to do. In 1737 they saw holiness comes by faith. They saw likewise, that men are justified before they are sanctified; but still holiness was their point. God then thrust them out, utterly against their will, to raise a holy people.” The mission statement of the early movement of Methodists was clearly dedicated to holiness as the guiding principle. Wesley asked himself the question, “What may we reasonably believe to be God’s design in raising up the Preachers called Methodists? Not to form any new sect: but to reform the nation, particularly the church; and to spread scriptural holiness over the land.
What exactly is this idea of holiness? Christian perfection, according to Wesley, is “purity of intention, dedicating all the life to God” and “the mind which was in Christ, enabling us to walk as Christ walked.” It is “loving God with all our heart, and our neighbor as ourselves” (A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, 109). It is “a restoration not only to the favour, but likewise to the image of God,” our “being filled with the fullness of God” (The End of Christ’s Coming, 482).
Wesley was clear that Christian perfection did not imply perfection of bodily health or an infallibility of judgment. It also does not mean we no longer violate the will of God, for involuntary transgressions remain. Perfected Christians remain subject to temptation, and have continued need to pray for forgiveness and holiness. It is not an absolute perfection but a perfection in love. Furthermore, Wesley did not teach a salvation by perfection, but rather says that, “Even perfect holiness is acceptable to God only through Jesus Christ.” (A Plain Account of Christian Perfection)
Holiness, or Perfectionism, was a guiding principle of the Methodist movement for Wesley. It was also one of the most contentious of issues throughout the history of our denomination.
Some in the movement stressed holiness as a personal moral code, while others translated holiness into social activism. Many remained true to Welsey’s notion that personal holiness fed social holiness.
The Book of Discipline states, “we proclaim no personal gospel that fails to express itself in relevant social concerns; we proclaim no social gospel that does not include the personal transformation of sinners” (49). The social witness that is the goal of the church begins in the hearts and lives of its believers.
Amidst the tumultuous times of the American 19th centuy, certain elements of the Methodist movement felt that the church wasn’t lifting up the great heritage of personal holiness. During the last half of the 19th century, groups within the church began challenging the church as a whole to become reinvested in “personal holiness” by reclaiming the class meetings and love feasts that had been a hallmark of our denominational expression. In the 1870’s a group called the National Camp Meeting Association for the Promotion of Holiness sought to bring the church back to the glory days of the early 1800’s, when the Methodist movement spread like wildfire throughout the wilderness of the Appalacias in a series of Camp meetings. IN the 1890’s The Nazarene church split off from the main line of Methodism as well because some felt that personal holiness was no longer being accentuated.
There is no contesting the fact that by the late 19th century, the Methodist Episcopal church had indeed lost many of the traditions that had characterized the movement in its earlier days, such as testimony, shared feeling, and spontaneous evangelism, and practices such as the class meeting and love feasts and camp meetings. However to identify these practices as the only vehicles of “Holiness” is to misinterpret Wesley’s full understanding of holiness. The church did indeed evolve. The class meeting became Sunday School, church policy and mission built on testimony and shared feeling was transformed into church policy and mission coming out of specialized, rationally deliberated and centrally coordinated committee meetings.
To say that these structures eliminated the persuasion of the Holy Spirit though is to believe the Holy Spirit is fairly weak and incapable. The emphasis in the Main line church at the time of the Holiness “exodus” and Pentecostal movement was indeed on transforming society, but it was still holiness. It was Social holiness—attention to women’s suffrage, dietary reform, medical attention in the ghettos and in poor countries, mission work, abolition of slavery.
What does it mean for us today?
As someone who is consecrated by the Bishop to serve as a leader and an example to this community, I understand holiness to be to make myself a “clean window” for God’s light to shine through my life. Wesley believed, and I believe, that personal holiness is the foundation of social holiness.
As we “grow in grace” and come closer to the redemptive heart of Christ, the Spirit will flow out of our hearts, as Christ proclaims in John 7: 37-38: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” Personal holiness is living with the thirst for Christ. When we drink from the spring of life, when we live holiness, our hearts become channels of that great peace and joy. That personal decision to accept the grace that aligns our lives with life of Christ makes us one more step toward a “complete holiness” of individuals and society.
The scriptures that we read today also give us a key to holiness. Oftentimes our temptation is to “show off” our holiness.
It’s this attitude that has caused modern minds to think negatively when they hear the word “pious.”
The prophet Micah reminds us that what the Lord truly requires of us is not the fanfare and the show, but instead God wants us to be excellent in the quiet things that truly show our love for the God of love: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. This is what it means to be an open window for God’s light.
Matthew also tells of Jesus warning his followers about the “dangers of holiness. It is our temptation to seek recognition for the lives we lead. Jesus tells us plainly, “Beware of practicing your piety in front of others in order to be seen by them, for then you will receive no reward from your father in heaven.” The pitfall of holiness is that we believe it is OUR determination to lead a life of piety and purity that DESERVES to be noticed.
This is why I prefer the window illustration. A window works best when it is completely clean and free of blemish or obstruction. Seeking a life of holiness is akin to keeping our “window clean.” What do we notice about a clean window? Well, if the window is truly clean, it might not even be noticed at all! A clean window is transparent—it draws no attention to itself, but instead to what is outside it! A clean and holy life truly draws attention not to ourselves, but to what shines through us!
At the end of the passage we read in Matthew, Jesus helps us reign in our egos and desire for attention by laying out a simple prayer. At the end of the prayer, he shares the secret of salvation. Most of us, when asked what it takes to be saved would probably lay out a set of beliefs. If you subscribe to this idea, then you’re saved—that’s the way many of us approach a life of faith.
However, according to Matthew, Jesus has another idea of what is the key to salvation. Once again, he lays it out very plainly—“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your Father will forgive you. But if you don’t forgive others, your father will not forgive you.” There it is—the most holy thing we can possibly do. Somewhere along the line, it was contorted simply into living a life of abstincence. Don’t drink, don’t smoke, and don’t dance: that’s holiness. How can we forget when it is right there in the print as plain as day—If you want to live a life of holiness, you must forgive! Forgiveness is that light that shines down from heaven. That is the main point that Jesus was trying to communicate to us—we are a forgiven people. If we block up the window and pull the drapes on God’s forgiveness by not allowing that beautiful light to shine through our lives, then we are in the darkness too!
If you’re seeking to live a holier life—start by asking yourself, “From whom am I withholding forgiveness?” If you have forgiven another person, but are not receiving reconciliation in return, know that God’s light of forgiveness is bursting at the seams to come back to you. Forgiveness is not ours, this is why it is a key to salvation. Forgiveness belongs only to God, and God wishes to share it through us with the world.
This is true holiness. Life is not a stage, and holiness is not a show. We don’t do things to be noticed. Holiness isn’t amping up our worship services so they look and sound more “spiritual.” Holiness is simply living forgiveness in every aspect of life. It’s keeping the window clean so that God’s light can shine through. What a gift it is to have the potential to represent God’s goodness in the world! May we all pray to “let love and integrity envelop me until my love is perfected and the last vestige of my desiring is no longer in conflict with thy Spirit. Lord, We want to be more holy in our hearts!” Amen

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Covenant Discipleship Group postponed

Although we have interest in the Covenant Discipleship group, we are having the worst luck finding a Sunday when those interested can meet to form the covenant. The meeting this Sunday after church will be postponed to a later date.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Sept. 09 Sermon: The connection

For the past few weeks, working on all our charge conference papers has gotten me thinking about our church’s connectional nature. What does it mean? What does it say to the world? Charge conference is when we account for our ministries in this local congregation to our district superintendent, Linda Harker. Linda is charged with the oversight of about 60 churches in the area around Muskogee, where her office is located. That is her appointment, fixed by the bishop of our conference, Robert Hayes. Her talents and ministries are shared with this congregation in her pastoral nurture of my family and me, through the accountability she gives us by reviewing our ministries, our spiritual and financial health as a congregation, and in her prayers for us and attention to our needs. Yes, the connection of the United Methodist Church is a wonderful and often ignored aspect of our denomination. So, in that spirit, I decided to take a few pictures of our church and show them to you this morning.

Looks like a very big church—perhaps a city church. Definitely not us! I can tell you many things about this church—youth have gone out to sleep on the street and were interviewed by the local news to raise awareness about the homelessness in their part of town. The choir is great—they have a pianist who really gets into the music and kind of bobs her head up and down.
The pastor is a dynamic woman who speaks with great joy and passion about the love of God, and yet has the heartache of living with a husband who has Alzheimer’s at a fairly young age. They have a vibrant Steven’s ministry, where members are trained to be grief counselors with other members in confidential, life giving settings. This, friends is your presence as a United Methodist on Wilshire Boulevard in Westwood—the neighborhood around UCLA where Lara and I used to attend before we came to know the Methodists here in this neck of the woods.
You have a real and living connection with Westwood UMC—and it is not just through Lara, who transferred her membership from this church to Waldron and then here. It is through a system that connects our local churches together to minister to the world in ways which might be impossible by ourselves. It was the faith and genius of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, to adopt such a structure for his renewal movement in eighteenth century England – a connectional system. For Wesley, that meant individual Christians involved in a small fellowship group, designed for faith-sharing and holding one another accountable to a life of discipleship. Those small groups were joined into congregations, which were joined into the larger connection of the whole of the Methodist movement.
Even closer to our church in connection is the body of United Methodists within the “connection” of the Oklahoma Conference. This church is literally a “charge” of the Methodist connection in this community. You may have noticed that I never took vows of membership within this particular church, because my membership is with the whole “connection” of United Methodism within the Oklahoma Conference. Of course, we do great ministry right here, through Morris United Methodist Church. But we do even greater things through our worldwide connection. This is who we are and what we support through our generous apportionment and mission giving.
Through our apportionment, that sum of money that our church sends to the conference and district and combined with the money collected by every other charge, we are able to provide for ministries in needed areas which are decided on by representatives of each charge at the “Annual Conference.” The apportionment is the “lifeblood” of the connectional system. It grounds the churches in the reality of their connection to the rest of the churches in the conference.
Our Book of Discipline, which is basically the constitution of the church, states that “Connectionalism in the UM tradition is multi-leveled, global in scope, and local in thrust. Our connectionalism is not merely a linking of one charge conference to another. It is rather a vital web of interactive relationships.
All this is not for its own sake. As the retired Bishop Kenneth Carder of Mississippi once said, “Polity is Ecclesiology”, or in simpler terms, the way we structure the church gives us insight on what we believe the church represents in the world. The connectional ideal is grounded in the very scriptures that we read today. We hear that Jesus wishes us to be “One, as the Father and I are one.” We also are familiar with Paul’s referral to the church as a body, and that as he says in Ephesians, “We are members, one of another.”
Paul speaks about the unified ideal of the church, and it is obvious that through a healthy and vibrant connection, we are more capable of reaching the goals of this earthly representation of the Body of Christ, in which we aspire to “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”
In my own experience, the connectional church has indeed promoted the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” Most of you know that as a minister in his first three years of ministry, I am in what is called he “probationary process.” This is administered by the Oklahoma conference to assure the people of its churches that it is served by a competent clergy. In this process, I have been involved in a group with other probationers and two retired clergy who are our mentors which meets about once a quarter. It has been very helpful for me to have these mentors and peers to talk with about my struggles, joys, and new insights as I am called to be the best pastor I can be. This kind of process would not be in place if we didn’t belong to a connectional church, where the pastors of UM churches in Mounds and Muskogee and Talequah and Muldrow all care very deeply and pray for my blooming ministry right here in Morris.
Perhaps one of the most visible and impacting aspects of the “connectional church” is the iteneracy. Though it may sometimes be a reason you lament being a United Methodist, you are served by an “itinerant” clergy. One who comes and lives in and serves this community along side you, but who remains a person “assigned” to this charge, and at the discretion of the Bishop and his cabinet may be reassigned to another “charge” within the Conference.
This method of organizing church leads to a very real sense of connection between the Methodist churches in one area because you are all served by the same clergy, and because we all contribute to one purpose—making disciples for Jesus Christ.
In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul speaks of this same structure within the church. He writes, “Using the gift God gave me as a good architect, I designed blueprints; Apollos is putting up the walls. Let each carpenter who comes on the job take care to build on the foundation!11 Remember, there is only one foundation, the one already laid: Jesus Christ. 12 Take particular care in picking out your building materials. 13 Eventually there is going to be an inspection. If you use cheap or inferior materials, you'll be found out. The inspection will be thorough and rigorous. You won't get by with a thing. 14 If your work passes inspection, fine; 15 if it doesn't, your part of the building will be torn out and started over. But you won't be torn out; you'll survive - but just barely. 16 You realize, don't you, that you are the temple of God, and God himself is present in you? 17 No one will get by with vandalizing God's temple, you can be sure of that. God's temple is sacred - and you, remember, are the temple.”
When I started parish ministry, I had a dream that I was a kind of “traveling architect” who came upon a group of people building a house. In my dream, you—the church were the people working on the house, and the house was something very special, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on a particular style. The house was a unique kind of place, windows sticking out here and there, winding staircases and turrets, a large, welcoming front door, and a couple back doors. As I came up to the house and made my suggestions for other additions to the house, you scratched your head and surveyed the plans, you shared your tools with me and we began building.
It became clear to me that you, the church, had been welcoming other “traveling architects” like me for quite some time, which was why this place was so unique. After reading this passage from Corinthians the other day, it struck me that the building that we are working on is literally God’s Temple—Not a physical structure, but the wonderful temple which is YOU according to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.
With an itinerant clergy, you may sometimes feel like a watering hole for clergy to pass through and offer their “two cents.” But if we pay attention to Paul’s metaphor, we see that we are indeed building a very unique and beautiful house—one that God can live in. A house that has welcoming doors and lots of windows. We should pay attention to the building materials that we use, because we want this house to stand the test of time—and it will endure some trials. However, with our connection, with the input of all those traveling architects, the Spirit will lead us to build on solid foundations.
One thing I really love are the great cathedrals of Europe . Some of us have been privileged to have stood under their great lofty domes and felt our spirits soar to the heights. Imagine the work of the first builders, learning how to keep those domes aloft. It was trial and error.
Did you know that the great dome of the Hagia Sofia in Constantinople collapsed twice before the builders learned how to do it right? But the cathedral builders gradually learned about arches and flying buttresses. They learned that the more structural connections you make, the stronger the building, the more structural connections, the larger and more expansive the dome. Just as for our greatest cathedrals, the same is true for the living body of the church as well. The more structural connections there are, the stronger the mission. The more connections there are, the larger and more expansive the witness.
And another thing about the great cathedral builders: they labored and labored on a project that would take longer to construct than they had to live. The cathedral builders were willing to give their lives to something that they would never see completed. This is the meaning of doing something “for the glory of God.” When we are committed to beauty and goodness truly for the sake of God, we commit ourselves to the fruition of that endeavor even when we are very confident that we won’t taste the fruit of our labors. This is what it means to struggle for the kingdom of God. Our training in this “instant gratification” culture may dissuade us from committing ourselves to such things, but we have faith in Christ that someday our efforts on behalf of the Kingdom of God will bear fruit. By connecting ourselves with others engaged in that task, we build bigger and grander Temples for God. When we join our voices with others, our witness echoes longer into the future.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

New Young Adult Small Group on Sun. Mornings

New Young Adult Sunday school class is off to a great start. 5 people attended our first meeting, and if more show up, we're going to have to move the class to the parsonage den. We hope that is the case! We're using the Nooma videos to guide discussions. Come check it out!

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Welcome to our Church Leon and Suzy!

Leon and Suzy Langford joined our church at our worship service today!

They transferred their membership from Advent Christian Church in Clovis, NM.

September 2 Sermon, Cracked Cisterns

Texts: Jeremiah and Luke

Man, I’m happy football season is here! One of my favorite NFL moments was back in 2000, when Terrell Owens, then with the S.F. 49ers, was playing a game against the Dallas Cowboys. T.O., as he is known, caught two touchdown passes in that game, and after each of them, he ran from the in-zone to midfield and stood in the big blue star at mid-field and held his hands out wide, like, “Look at me! I’m the Star!” Not exactly a paragon of humility.
Here is one who exalts himself, and has made his name for exalting himself. After scoring his 100th career touchdown in Philadelphia, he pulled a towel from his waist, folded it over his arm, and then placed the football in the palm of his hand, holding it over his shoulder and pretending to serve it up to the opposing team like a waiter would present a meal.
“The proud man can learn humility, but he will be proud of it”
A church realized the importance of humility, so it formed a committee to find the most humble person in the church. Many names were submitted and numerous candidates evaluated. Finally, the committee came to a unanimous decision. They selected a quiet little man who always lived in the background and had never taken credit for anything he had done. They awarded him the "Most Humble" button for his faithful service. However, the next day they had to take it away from him because he pinned it on. (Kent Crockett, Making Today Count for Eternity, Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2001, p. 122)
Humility is something that’s hard to get a handle on. Is it humility when one stifles their pride? Is it an inner quality, something we are born with, or is it something that can be practiced into reality? Jesus seems to think it is the latter. Here he is in precarious dinner situation—pay attention to the text—Luke tells us his hosts are “watching him closely.”
Haven’t you ever been invited to a dinner like that? Where you sense your kind “hosts” are watching you like a hawk, wondering if you’re going to mess up? I know I have! Jesus gives his hosts plenty to chew on, that’s for sure.
I can just see the other guests of the dinner “discreetly” trying to assume their place at the head table, and then Jesus gives them a little “word to the wise.” “Hey guys, aren’t you going to be embarrassed if someone more important than you arrives, and our host has to tell you to go sit at the “kid’s table?” “Instead,” Jesus says, “take the lowest seat and your host might tell you, Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.”
And then he speaks in the future tense. When Jesus speaks in the future tense, he’s speaking about “Kingdom Life.” Kingdom life is the way that God dreams that we will live. Kingdom life is what we strive toward as people of faith. Jesus says, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Humility is not to be feigned as a strategy for recognition. On the contrary, humility is a quality of life open to persons who know that their worth is not measured by recognition from their peers but by the certainty that God has accepted them. St. Augustine said, “Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.”
A truly humble man is hard to find, yet God delights to honor such selfless people. Booker T. Washington, the renowned black educator, was an outstanding example of this truth. Shortly after he took over the presidency of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, he was walking in an exclusive section of town when he was stopped by a wealthy white woman. Not knowing the famous Mr. Washington by sight, she asked if he would like to earn a few dollars by chopping wood for her. Because he had no pressing business at the moment, Professor Washington smiled, rolled up his sleeves, and proceeded to do the humble chore she had requested. When he was finished, he carried the logs into the house and stacked them by the fireplace. A little girl recognized him and later revealed his identity to the lady.
The next morning the embarrassed woman went to see Mr. Washington in his office at the Institute and apologized profusely. "It's perfectly all right, Madam," he replied. "Occasionally I enjoy a little manual labor. Besides, it's always a delight to do something for a friend." She shook his hand warmly and assured him that his meek and gracious attitude had endeared him and his work to her heart. Not long afterward she showed her admiration by persuading some wealthy acquaintances to join her in donating thousands of dollars to the Tuskegee Institute.

Here’s the paradox: true Humility rests on the firm foundation of a deep, abiding confidence-- A confidence that our worth is not measured by recognition from our peers but by the certainty that God has accepted us. Humility is a state of rest, it is a state of contentment. Pride and posturing, jockeying for the best seat in the house---all of that springs out of a deep sense of unease.
The Lord says, through the prophet Jeremiah, “my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.” Jeremiah is referring to the fickleness of the people of God. God has sorrow for his people.
They have the pride to believe that they can choose their own gods much like the dinner guests with whom Jesus ate had the pride to believe they could choose the place of honor. But our worldly ideas of honor and glory and achievement and status are “cracked cisterns that hold no water.” They are rooted in the corroding and corrosive virtues of self-reliance, hoarding, and greed. In the Kingdom of God, these fortresses of earthly glory will crumble.
Why do we leave the fountain of living water and turn to inventions of our own making? Why do we forsake humility for pride? Why do we abandon the surety of God’s promise for the shaky ground of self reliance? Why do we build our houses on the sand instead of the rock? To me, it conjures up the image of trading in a ring of precious metal that I have neglected to polish for shiny tinsel. Does that metaphor translate for you? God’s love and promise is like precious metal. When we do not nurture the connection with God, it, like precious metal, loses its luster. To the casual glance, it might not seem worth anything anymore. Along comes the huckster, the deceiver, and he says to us. Why do you carry around that ugly old ring? I have a new and shiny one for you! But the ring is made out of tinsel—it is worthless. Notice what Jeremiah hears God saying, “What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?”
Oh, that cuts to the quick, doesn’t it! God’s heart is aching over our short-sightedness, our gluttony. We prop up ourselves instead of leaning on each other. We value pride and exaltation over humility and servanthood. We go after worthless things and become worthless ourselves.
The meaning and value that God gives you when you take your first breath is of more worth than any pursuit in our temporary world that might bring you temporary fame or temporary pride or temporary importance. If we forsake the Divine Breath within us to pursue temporary things, we are trading in a gold ring for a tinsel one. We are leaving the spring of life and making for ourselves cracked cisterns that hold no water. We are taking the honored place at a table when the guest of honor is walking up to the front door.
But God wants to bring you to a table where living water flows freely. God wants to say to us “Friend, move up higher.” God wants to claim you and give you meaning and worth that cannot be taken away. God wants to give you the polish that will bring the luster back to the ring of our inheritance. And it happens right here—it happens at this table. And do you notice what we do before we come to this table? We begin with confession. Sir Thomas More said, “Humility, that low, sweet root, from which all heavenly virtues shoot.” Yes, this is the root of Kingdom Life. This is life at the fountain of life. Paul tells the Corinthians,
“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. 28Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” The response to God’s grace that is revealed to us in scripture is confession. Confession humbles the heart, and it prepares us to receive a place at the table.
Confession opens our ears and allows us to hear the invitation of God— If we are deafened by singing our own praises, we won’t hear God telling us, “Friend, move up higher.”