The Last Shall be First
A sermon preached by The Rev. Nils Chittenden
Sunday August 28, 2016
Try as we might, we all too readily overlook Christ’s humanity in preference for his divinity. For me, the fact that Jesus is as fully human as he is fully divine, is a source of great gladness, because it reinforces that in becoming one of us, God cares about things earthly and is alongside us not only in the lovely, kind and wonderful bits but also in the messy and nasty bits of human existence too. The reason why we are asked, repeatedly, throughout the Bible and in Christian tradition, to come to the help of those in need is not because it buys us a ticket to heaven or gets us into God’s good books but because God has created a wonderful, beautiful world with the capacity in each one of us for human tenderness, kindness, altruism and joy and God wants everyone in the world to enjoy that. Being a Christian is as much about believing in life before death as in life after death. If I were cynical, I would also want to add that the Church has sometimes been guilty of telling the poor and the needy to put up with their lot because they’ll get their reward in heaven, but I’m not cynical, so I won’t mention that.
All of this is at the very heart of both our reading from Hebrews and the Gospel reading from Luke this morning. Kindness and compassion are not social obligations, nor a question of ticking off a list of rules we’ve managed not to break. The way God asks us to relate to other human beings is based not on any human definitions or assumptions. The way God asks is to relate to other human beings is based entirely on one thing, and one thing only. It’s known in shorthand by theologians as a Latin term: Imago Dei. The Image and Likeness of God. God asks us to relate to other human beings – indeed, the whole of creation – in this way: everything, everyone is made in the image and likeness of God. Everyone, everything, has been lovingly created by God in his own very image. Imagine that! When we wound another, we wound God. When we show kindness and offer dignity to another, we honor God.
We have so separated out the divine and the earthly, the spiritual and the temporal, that when we say the phrase ‘Christian worship’ we immediately think of organized religion, liturgy and so on. What ‘worship’ of course means (and I certainly find that I have to often remind myself of this) is giving God worth. When you put together the notion of ‘Imago Dei’ and the notion of ‘giving God worth’ you suddenly get a heady cocktail of Christian discipleship that is less about what goes on inside church buildings and more about how we relate to anyone and everyone we meet throughout the week.
On the several occasions that I flown over the past year or so, I have been aware of the absence of an old friend. You will know this old friend. You would always find it in the seat pocket of every plane based in the US. It is the Sky Mall catalog. I have so many favorite ridiculous items that I hardly know how to single out any of them. When I first came across the Sky Mall catalog, I wanted to share the love with my congregation in England, and I wrote down a couple of choice nuggets, which I have referred back to:
For $99.95, you can get a personalized branding iron to sear your initials in the meat you are grilling, to “show your guests the pride you take in being a great chef.”
If that’s not narcissistic enough for you, the one that wins hands down is a little box that plays applause and cheers when you lift its lid. “Craving a little recognition? Someone who gets your jokes? Open the Box of Applause and be greeted with the sounds of clapping and cheering from a very enthusiastic crowd. Close your eyes, and imagine yourself accepting that Oscar, Nobel or Best Comedy Emmy”. Desktop day-brighter is MDF with a dark cherry finish and magnetic closure. Takes 2 AAA batteries (included).
Lest you think that I am mocking the patrons of the Sky Mall catalogue, let me tell you that clergy have their own equivalent: the vestment catalogue. Leave one of these in a room with a bunch of priests and they will descend on it likes flies round a honey pot, drooling over the latest brocade, or satin-lined cassocks.
What would Jesus have made of the Box of Applause, or the steak brander, or the Gothic chasuble in Venetian brocade trimmed with gold orphreys? I think we all know. He was very clear about it, and we have the answer in that reading we have just heard from St Luke’s Gospel.
We often hear about Jesus’ run-ins with the Pharisees. I have no doubt that their leader inviting Jesus to dine was in part about keeping tabs on this unpredictable wandering preacher, with perhaps just a soupçon of entrapment. But, also, I think that they were just a little bit impressed by him – as he again and again manages to run rings round them intellectually. Jesus is, in this episode, rather measured in his condemnation. But he still made it plain what he thought of them. He condemned their desire for recognition and for prestige, whether through their ritual, or their clothing, or their social climbing at luncheons and dinners.
Whenever I read that passage from Luke, I think to myself, ‘well, it’s a good job we’re not like them’. I mean, can you imagine a church where people would be the slightest bit interested in how you looked or what you wore? Can you imagine a church where there were ranks of seniority, and people dressed up to reflect their status? Can you imagine a church where people said one thing, yet did another? Can you?
We’re so used to identifying ourselves with Jesus message, that we have conferred on ourselves a kind of immunity. I don’t know about you, but I read those passages where Jesus has his confrontations with the religious authorities, and I think to myself, ‘Oh, those Pharisees! They JUST. DON’T.GET. IT, do they?’
But here’s the great paradox.
AS SOON AS WE THINK WE’RE NOT LIKE THOSE PHARISEES, WE ARE.
Quite plainly there are more parallels between us, our Church and the Pharisees, than we might care to admit. Every single failing that Jesus upbraids the Pharisees for we ourselves are guilty of, too. And, frankly, it doesn’t matter whether or not we’re talking about our Church lives or not. In fact, Jesus could have singled out pretty much any established group with influence, authority and power, religious or otherwise. The message is still the same. If we wish to please God, to bless God, to worship God, then – as the line of the gospel reading has it – you must demote yourself from your elevated position and become humble, becoming, in effect, a servant. And that’s a principle that cuts across all strata of society. It’s easy to pick out Pharisaical behavior in the rich and the prominent. They’re easy targets. But Pharisees are everywhere. They are the people who value status, they are the people who prioritize the letter of the law over its spirit, they are the people who belittle others, they’re the people who are so good at seeing the faults in others that they don’t have the inclination to see the faults in themselves. And you know who those people are? Me and you.
The night before ordination in England, the candidates would meet with their Bishop on retreat and he would give what’s called the ‘Bishop’s Charge’. This is what he said. He spoke about the day he was ordained deacon. He spent it, obviously, in all his finery, set apart for his new ministry, the focus of attention, vested with new power and influence. He enjoyed the splendor and the lavishness of it all, and the grandeur of his new position. At the end of the day, after the parish ‘do' following his welcome service, he found himself alone in the church hall, stacking brown plastic chairs and felt indignant. ‘I shouldn't be doing this, I wasn't ordained to stack plastic chairs'. Then he immediately rebuked himself. “No, actually, this is precisely what you were ordained to do. To be a servant, to serve through even the humblest of actions, and to lead through a life of servant-hood”.
“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."